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Development and Settlement of Disputes

Networked Transparency: Constructing a Common Operational Picture of the South China Sea

Authors: Dr. Van Jackson, Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper, Paul Scharre, Harry Krejsa, and Commander Jeff Chism

Center for a New American Security

I. Introduction

The South China Sea is strategically important and resource-rich, crucial to the lifeblood of U.S. and Indo-Pacific economies. Roughly one-third, or $5 billion, of the world’s commercial shipping passes through its waterways annually. The South China Sea is home to proven reserves of at least 7 billion barrels of oil, as well as what is estimated to be 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Fifty percent of all global oil tanker shipments pass through the region. And these shipments are vital to meeting the energy needs of most Asian countries, providing 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy, two-thirds of South Korean imports, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports.

It is also a highly contested space, and the proximate sources of tensions are well-known. Ongoing sovereignty disputes among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei lead to competition over hundreds of islands, reefs, and reclaimed land. The strategic implications for growing tensions among these claimants are profound. Together these nations produce $11.7 trillion of global gross domestic product (GDP) and are home to a third of the world’s population, including half a billion who live within 100 miles of the South China Sea coastline alone.

Yet underlying these resource and sovereignty tensions is something even more pernicious: The South China Sea is an opaque, low-information environment. Most South China Sea islets are hundreds of miles from shore, making it especially difficult for governments and commercial entities to monitor events at sea when they occur. This dearth of situational awareness worsens regional competition in the South China Sea. The region is already rife with rapid military modernization, resurgent nationalism, the blurring of economic and security interests, and heightened geopolitical wrangling with China (by great and small powers alike). Left unchecked, these pressures make conflict more likely by tempting major military accidents and crises that could drag down the economic and political future of the region.

These negative trends converging in the South China Sea also create missed opportunities among regional stakeholders for positive gains. South China Sea stakeholders have many transnational and economic interests of growing importance in common – from counterpiracy to maritime commerce and disaster response – but the competitive nature of the South China Sea today impedes collective action to solve shared problems. States have trouble engaging in cooperation, even when it would advance shared interests. This challenges the foundations of a stable regional order. The more states believe they live in an anarchical neighborhood, the more likely the region sees the worst of geopolitics: security dilemmas, arms races, and policies motivated by fear and greed rather than reason and restraint.

There is no silver bullet to entirely resolve the historical, strategic, and technological factors that are contributing to a more contentious security environment in Asia. Nevertheless, there remain practical and politically viable initiatives that could have a substantial effect in mitigating insecurities while fostering cooperation on issues of common interest.

This report proposes that enhanced, shared maritime domain awareness (MDA) – that is, a near-realtime understanding of air and sea activities – in the South China Sea is a realistic means of addressing some of the underlying and proximate problems facing this strategic waterway. A maritime domain awareness architecture may engender cooperation in a region devoid of trust, prevent misunderstandings, encourage operational transparency, and lead to capacity-building efforts that contribute to the regional public good. This study explores how advances in commercial technology services, regional information-sharing, and security cooperation can contribute to enhanced regional security. We believe these advances can do so by moving the region closer to establishing a common, layered, and regularly updated picture of air and maritime activity in the South China Sea – a common operational picture (COP) for a tempestuous domain.

The U.S. military has long relied on a common operational picture to enable command and control linking strategic decisionmakers located at headquarters elements and operational units located in the field. A COP amounts to a visualization tool for situational awareness, described more narrowly by the military as “a single identical display of relevant information shared by more than one command that facilitates collaborative planning and assists all echelons to achieve situational awareness.” This domain-agnostic military definition conveys that a COP is a tool for maintaining situational awareness, but not how situational awareness occurs. That requires the confidence-building, technical capacity, and commitment to stability-promoting transparency that this report explores.

Transparency: The Next Phase of the Rebalance

While this report was being written, U.S. policymakers made two major public commitments linking South China Sea transparency to larger goals of stability and assured access. The first, the Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, lays out what the Department of Defense (DoD) sees as the most pressing challenges facing the region, as well as the most promising openings for future collaboration and improvement. The second, the Maritime Security Initiative, seeks to make these opportunities reality, funding regional capacity-building efforts to the tune of $425 million. Both initiatives rightly prioritize enhancing local partner military abilities, regional cooperation, and maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea, but they focus much more on framing past actions and justifying present initiatives than on laying out a road map for the future.

Such an effort could be an important part of the broader U.S. strategy for the region. To that end, this report prescribes for the United States a maritime domain awareness road map comprising four lines of effort. We envision coordinated capacity-building for select Southeast Asian militaries through:

• A concert of outside stakeholder powers;

• A U.S.-centric effort relying heavily on U.S.-controlled information collection and distribution;

• Expansion of the capacity and reach of extant institutions that perform maritime awareness and information-sharing functions; and

• An inclusive approach that empowers regional institutions and relies on private-sector partnerships.

Each of these strategies prioritizes different ways of enhancing maritime domain awareness, and each has distinct benefits and drawbacks. In aggregate, the types of activities constituting these strategies offer policymakers menus from which they can pick and choose to build better maritime domain awareness given political realities, cost constraints, trust, and other salient conditions that may shift over time. Advancing shared situational awareness in practice will likely require drawing on all four strategic approaches, and this report identifies several key near-term tasks for policymakers and operators to render the region’s most volatile waterway into an open, transparent, and stable one.

II. Taking action against troubling regional trends

III. Information-sharing capacity for the South China Sea

IV. The process elements of maritime awareness

V. Three models of maritime awareness

VI. Strategies for improving South China Sea situational awareness

VII. Getting real: A road map for the maritime security initative

List of acronyms and endnotes

Download the full report at Networked Transparency – CNAS proposal March 2016 [PDF].


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