Hoang Do

The article was originally published by USIP.

In early August, a Chinese coast guard vessel fired a water cannon at a Philippine supply boat, in what was yet another example of Beijing’s so-called “gray-zone” tactics in the South China Sea. These gray zone activities are a form of slow intensity conflict that China has increasingly employed over the last year to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines are frequently the targets of such activities. In response, international actors like the QUAD (made up of the United States, India, Japan and Australia) and the European Union have been seeking to cooperate with Southeast Asian countries with South China Seas claims on maritime domain awareness (MDA) initiatives.

How to Help ASEAN Address South China Sea ‘Gray-zone’ Challenges
Monitors on a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon show a group of ships at Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands during a mission to monitor China's militarization of islands in the South China Sea, Sept. 5, 2018. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), MDA is “is the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, the economy or the marine environment.” The MDA initiatives of the QUAD and the EU, among other efforts, are vital tools for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) claimants in dealing with Beijing’s gray-zone tactics and addressing other maritime needs. But there are ways that these initiatives could be improved, both in terms of their design and coordination.

Addressing the Gray-zone Challenge

One reason why the abovementioned gray-zone activities are difficult to deal with is because they are often under the radar. China’s militia vessels, for example, usually turn off their automatic identification system (AIS) or have a short-range transmitter so it is hard for them to be located. AISs can also be manipulated and do not reflect the full picture. For example, in a May incident in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, China’s survey ships had their AIS on and were picked up with open-sourced tracking tools, but their pattern of behaviors and activities were hard to decipher (see below).

How to Help ASEAN Address South China Sea ‘Gray-zone’ Challenges
This graphic depicts the route of a Chinese survey vessel, the XYH-10, as it traversed Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in May 2023. (The East Sea Institute)

This is where the QUAD and EU’s MDA initiatives can come in handy. They can provide multiple layers of real-time data in a large geographical scale, overcoming the limits of existing AIS-based monitoring tools by integrating databases based on electro-optical, radio frequency, artificial intelligence, and others, to help detect vessels when their location transmitters have been switched off and to provide high-quality pictures of their activities. In particular, the QUAD’s Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) integrates radio frequency and satellite data from HawkEye360’s satellites into the web-based SeaVision system developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide sharper and faster pictures. The EU’s Critical Maritime Routes Indian Ocean program II (CRIMARIO) operates on a web-based platform called IORIS, accumulating data from AIS and Skylight AI, with potential integration of Copernicus satellite data and radio frequency data, to perform a similar function. With these capabilities, gray-zone activities can be identified and analyzed faster, which can also serve as a deterrence mechanism.

Meeting Other Maritime Needs

Beside the gray-zone challenges, ASEAN claimants have other needs that the QUAD and EU programs can help address. First, maritime crimes, including illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and armed robberies, can be reduced. Many ASEAN members are ranked in the top 50 or 60 countries with serious IUU fishing issues. ASEAN’s cooperation agreement on combating piracy and armed robbery, known as ReCAAP, has demonstrated success in preventing crimes, with the overall incident numbers in Asia decreasing ever since the establishment of ReCAAP’s information-sharing center. The MDA proposals could further bolster similar capacity.

Second, new technologies adopted in the MDA initiatives could be employed for developmental needs. This includes tracking sea-level rise impacts, an issue of critical importance for many ASEAN countries vulnerable to submersion. MDA technologies could also help identify potential offshore and renewable energy sources, contributing to ASEAN’s goals made at COP26. They could also facilitate the ability to master emerging technologies in the long run, including unmanned aircraft, floating buoys, space satellites or artificial intelligence. 

Third, interagency connectivity could benefit from the MDA programs. In Vietnam, agencies participating in maritime monitoring usually utilize internal databases and locally produced software, which are secure but usually AIS-based, not interconnected and only effective near the coastline. External databases such as Ship Finder or Marine Traffic have been introduced but mostly for individual reference due to their commercial and foreign nature. New multilateral MDA programs can help bridge that gap by providing a one-stop shop for all commercial databases and points of contact from international partners, allowing users to interact in sharable and affordable interactive platforms. 

Possible Concerns

Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam have been invited to adopt CRIMARIO’s IORIS. IPMDA was demonstrated at last year’s SEACAT exercise, a multilateral effort to build cooperation among Indo-Pacific nations, and was reportedly offered to some ASEAN countries. 

However, concerns might exist. Some might say MDA is a generally “U.S.-centric” concept coined by the Bush administration in the post-9/11 context. Others could say some MDA initiatives are intelligence-sharing platforms explicitly aimed at China, which could exacerbate regional tension. National security and defense might be another concern when it comes to sharing information via new technology. Technical compatibility is also a potential issue, as Southeast Asia countries typically import Russian hardware systems.

These worries are not unfounded but can be mitigated. The MDA concept, despite its U.S.-leaning starting point, has increasingly been internationalized, with a wide range of actors, like Japan, India, Canada, the IMO and the African Union, showing interest in MDA. India has even claimed that they have been promoting MDA internally since 1996. Singapore has its own Information Fusion Center and introduced its real-time information-sharing system to ASEAN. MDA is also common ASEAN topic, embedded in ASEAN’s workshops, defense working group agenda and exercises.  

Additionally, these MDA initiatives have not received any official political condemnation from regional countries. China, the often-cited source of concern, has refrained from publicly criticizing IPMDA and CRIMARIO, while developing similar programs of its own. 

It is also worth noting that a vast majority of "intelligence" in this arena comes from civilian or open sources and web-based MDA tools can be flexibly adopted regardless of hardware differences.

The Way Forward

How can the QUAD and EU promote more effective MDA efforts with ASEAN?

From a communication perspective, while inviting ASEAN members to join, the QUAD and EU should make sure that substantial information is provided. There are still questions about IPMDA’s potential scope of coverage: What new technologies will be integrated after an initial five-year period and how transparent can it be? Will users be required to provide their own information later on? Second, they should reinforce a common code of participation that leaves the door open for all interested parties in ASEAN. Third, the messaging should revolve around promoting public goods rather than amplifying competition.

From the operational angle, there should be a differentiation between strategic confidential information sharing and tactical open-sourced efforts. ASEAN countries should be able to join at their own pace, taking part in whatever activity they are comfortable with, and retaining autonomy over strategic data. Within the tactical open realm, prioritized activities should include anti-IUU, piracy and smuggling, search and rescue, environmental protection, disaster prevention and seaport connectivity, among others, instead of militarized goals. Additionally, the QUAD and EU should push tactical cooperation to move past information gathering toward information analysis in the future.

From the coordination perspective, they should find a way to come up with a more concerted and coordinated MDA effort to avoid functional overlap and miscommunication, with connection to other parties offering MDA-related programs like Canada, India or Japan. 

Lastly, ASEAN countries should acknowledge that MDA capacity building is a real need, regardless of its label. If the term “MDA” is deemed too sensitive, ASEAN can come up with its own term. ASEAN can also make use of its existing platforms to push for the bloc to become a potential hub for MDA connection, utilizing its strength in trust-building and its current inclusive partnership network. In track 1.5 or track 2 channels, ASEAN can establish system connecting research institutes and universities related to maritime security and technology, organizing workshops or joint research to expand the usage of MDA, come up with new policy recommendations or train soft skills needed for tactical cooperation, such as languages, international law or information analysis. 

Ultimately, MDA initiatives like those proposed by the QUAD and EU can be immensely beneficial to ASEAN in dealing with gray-zone challenges and a number of other critical security and development concerns. But more is not necessarily better in this case. What’s needed most is for the range of actors invested or interested in MDA in the South China Sea to coordinate these initiatives into a coherent and transparent cooperative mechanism.  

Hoang Do is a research official at the East Sea Institute, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is a former Fulbright grantee at the George Washington University. This article expresses the author’s personal view, not his affiliations’.