International Affairs Forum:
There have been a number of high-profile cases of piracy this year off the coast of Somalia. What has been the experience of piracy in East Asia, and are there any lessons from Asia's experience that you think might be helpful in dealing with piracy elsewhere?
Commodore Carlos L. Agustin:
In both cases the economic situation has a bearing. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, there was a rise in incidents in South East Asia. I think though that additionally the Somali case is a special one. There is anarchy and civil war in Somalia, and there is failure in governance, aggravated by a situation with warlords cooperating with pirates. In East Asia, relatively effective governments are in place and maritime authorities are fully cooperating to address the problem. Unfortunately the coastal states in Africa are all experiencing difficulties with their own internal problems and thus cooperation against piracy seems far fetched for now. I think they can learn from East Asia, and perhaps an initiative can be organized for a meeting among them to resolve this matter, if not yet done. This could either be under the auspices of the United Nations, or some other organization to which they belong, if not multilaterally at their own initiative.
Do you think governments in Asia are doing enough to cooperate on maritime security?
Since Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori convened the 16-nation conference on piracy in Tokyo to discuss the growing incidence of piracy and other attacks on shipping following attacks on Japanese ships in 2000, significant progress has been made in South East Asia, particularly on the proposed joint action against pirates in South East Asia. A few years ago, even Adm. Thomas Fargo, the U.S. Pacific Commander, proposed his Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI), which did not get concurrence of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has its own initiative on the Malacca Strait issue. Today, Asian Coast Guards have organized themselves (the last meeting was hosted by the Philippine Coast Guard here in Manila last month), and obviously maritime piracy is high on their agenda.
What are some of the barriers to cooperation?
In my opinion, the most pressing is the unequal capabilities of the navies and Coast Guards. The weaker states, without strong historical and diplomatic linkages with the stronger ones, may have some hesitation to allow a substantial presence of the others. With the organization of Coast Guard agencies, this may change. A second barrier may be the existence of border disputes, although this can be handled diplomatically. A third one would be the need for funding to support organized action.
Japan has been beefing up its coast guard to play a more active security role. Do you think that cooperation between countries' coast guards could be a useful and less controversial way of countries working together than having their navies conduct exercises?
Definitely. We have a long history of Coast Guard to Coast Guard cooperation between the USCG and the JCG (former JMSA), the USCG and the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG), where USCG liaison officers used to be seconded to the PCG, the PCG and the Japan Coast Guard, the PCG (where JMSA liaison officers were likewise with the PCG) and the DGSC-Indonesian Coast Guard. We did JMSA-ASEAN cooperation on MARPOL before, which in fact I proposed to extend to having jointly manned MARPOL (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) stations and even anti-piracy stations, particularly in the BIMP-EAGA (Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area) after the Abu Sayyaf hostage taking in Sabah and Palawan. But I subscribe to continuation of the naval exercises as well, since they are effective for Confidence Building Measures in reducing tension.
On the issue of navies, how do you think the build-up of China's military, including its navy, is viewed by other countries in the region?
Of course everyone views with concern the military and naval buildup of China. It is viewed as China flexing its muscles and accepted to be a move toward challenging U.S. military power in the region. Yet everyone likewise recognizes that it is a nation’s sovereign right to modernize its armed forces. China realizes that it needs to conduct continuing dialogue with its neighbors and other players in the Asia-Pacific region in order to have a common understanding. For this reason China has taken the initiative to organize a regular ASEAN-China Dialogue, which started in March of this year, and an expanded one it calls the Xiangshan Forum, which had its second meeting in Beijing only last Oct. 24-27, 2008.
Commodore Carlos L Agustin AFP (Ret) is president of the National Defense College of the Philippines and a former commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard
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