By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
The Thousand-Ship Navy probably will never leave port in Asia.
Differences in strategy, threat perception, financial constraints and territorial disputes —particularly over the Strait of Malacca and the Spratly Islands — make the concept unfeasible, analysts in the region say.
Most in Asia view the concept simply as a cooperative agreement that would apply mostly to coast guard or maritime police units, said Sam Bateman, senior fellow at the Australia Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong. These units patrol narrow and shallow waterways that large naval vessels avoid.
“This is particularly the case in both North and Southeast Asia due to sensitivities about the employment of navies and naval cooperation,” Bateman said.
He does not foresee Indonesia and Malaysia playing along.
“Indonesia and Malaysia are quite unlikely to agree on the application of the concept for the reasons that have been well-rehearsed in the past with regard to outside military assistance with security in the Malacca Strait,” Bateman said. “Note also that these countries have embarked on policies to de-escalate the involvement of their navies in providing security and safety in the strait.”
Ambassador Hasjim Djalal, a senior adviser to the Indonesian naval chief of staff, agrees.
“Foreign navies [would not be] patrolling Indonesian waters in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, or, for that matter, anywhere else in Indonesia, because it would be understood to be an affront and a violation of Indonesian territorial sovereignty,” he said. “Besides, it could create unnecessary problems with [the] Indonesian Navy and other Indonesian law enforcement agencies.”
China, which has built up much good will in Southeast Asia while working to undercut similar U.S. attempts, will hinder the thousand-ship navy concept.
In September, Beijing offered to sponsor a project with Indonesia to repair seven navigational aids damaged during the 2004 tsunami, but Japan and the United States refused to participate. China also signed a maritime cooperation agreement with Malaysia in August, and established a formal mechanism for information exchange on Strait of Malacca security with Singapore in late 2006. The United States and Japan have been largely silent on these issues.
China has taken an aggressive approach to issues such as sea lanes of communication and energy security issues. The Strait of Malacca plays directly into this strategy, and it is unlikely that Beijing will support a U.S.-led effort to coordinate a unified-navies approach to policing the strait.
Other problems, such as the procedures for boarding suspicious merchant ships, must be worked out before many Asian countries would participate.
“Basically, boarding is not allowed without the permission of the flag state of the registered ship unless the ship is engaged in piracy, slave trade, unauthorized broadcasting, the ship is without nationality, or the ship is flying a foreign flag or refusing to show its flag,” said Joshua Ho, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. “There needs to be a recrafting of the International Law through conventions or a rewording of UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] for the boarding to be permissible.”
Some critics in Asia say the idea of a 1,000-ship navy exists already under the 1982 UNCLOS, which laid down a framework for international maritime cooperation. The United States, which has signed but not ratified the convention, is attempting to create a mirror organization that puts the U.S. Navy in the lead position — to which many Asian countries, particularly China, have objected. Other states that have not joined the UNCLOS include Iran, Israel, Libya, North Korea and Syria.
“There are other things that foreign users of the Straits, either states or corporations, can do to help coastal countries in developing their capabilities for law enforcement at sea and to protect the safety of navigation and the environment in the Straits in accordance with the UNCLOS 1982 ... without insisting on patrolling the Straits themselves,” said Indonesia’s Djalal. “Equally, the problems of terrorism and its alignment with piracy have not taken place in the Straits as feared.”
In East Asia, a Different Story
Japan and Korea, which rely heavily on oil tankers that navigate the Strait of Malacca, have some incentive to participate.
Normally, Japan is encumbered by a variety of constitutional and antiquated policies that prohibit the use of military force. But “the concept of the 1,000-ship navy should actually suit Japan to a T,” said Peter Woolley, author of the recent book, “Geography and Japan’s Strategic Choices.”
The concept likely would benefit South Korea and Japan most in the region, because it would help suppress piracy and other disorders in the straits and seas between Japan, South Korea and the Indian Ocean.
Woolley said the concept does not require other countries to ally formally with Tokyo, which may make Japan’s participation easier for them to accept as well. Finally, the concept deals with humanitarian responses, a well-established acceptable use of Japan’s military.
But for Taiwan, another major user of the Strait of Malacca, the 1,000-ship navy is a lofty dream. Taiwan’s four destroyers, 22 frigates, and mix of amphibious landing ships and patrol boats would make it an attractive addition to the roll call, but China is not likely to allow Taiwan’s inclusion.
China has successfuly blocked Taiwan’s entry into many international organizations and treaties, including beauty pageants and the United Nations. Taiwan’s Yangming and Evergreen shipping companies pass through the Strait of Malacca daily. Ironically, the same shipping containers also carry goods from Chinese manufacturers via Hong Kong ports to the United States and Europe.