Accelerating Maritime Security in the South China Sea: Small Satellites & a Common Operating Picture

By John Schaus

East Asia from outer space. Source: Earth Observatory via Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

East Asia from outer space. Source: Earth Observatory via Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

As heads of state seek good-news deliverables at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, East Asia Summit, and Group of 20 leaders’ meetings, a longer-term issue is shaping the drivers of peace and conflict in maritime Southeast Asia. Growing tensions related to unresolved maritime disputes in the South China Sea are driving a maritime hardware buying spree by the littoral states. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia are all investing in patrol craft and maritime domain awareness capabilities to overcome current gaps. The investment choices, rational from each state’s perspective, are based in the same sovereignty-driven paradigm that is fueling tensions and will not provide sufficient impetus for dispute resolution or cooperation through an increased degree of transparency.

The annual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Retreat on November 18-19 provides an opportunity for ASEAN claimants to discuss among themselves ways to enhance cooperation. Advances in commercially available satellite imagery technology provide a cost-effective tool for ASEAN states to enhance security, increase cooperation, and build trust among all states—if they believe they have more to gain through cooperation than through going it alone.

The United States has been consistent in stating its desired outcome for the complicated patchwork of overlapping claims in the South China Sea: peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law. ASEAN’s now all-but-dormant quest to establish with China a code of conduct for the South China Sea is regularly promoted as the best option, short of full resolution. However, the claimants—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan—are engaged in a range of activities to indicate ownership and assert control over land and waters, or even to create islands where none previously existed. All of these activities raise tensions, and all are abetted by insufficient national or multilateral awareness. In security terms, there is inadequate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. This “fog” enables provocative actions that go unnoticed for several days or weeks and which result in a finger-pointing situation where each side has its own version of “facts.”

One way to lift this fog is for claimant states to decide that their interests are better served by transparency than by current practices. Collaborating to establish a readily available and continuously updated set of images of the situation in the South China Sea would provide a common operating picture for all claimants. In addition to reducing the fog, it could serve as a low-cost way for each claimant to enhance its awareness of activities in the South China Sea and to assign its law enforcement vessels to more targeted patrols. Pursuing national approaches is logical, but is both costly and slow. Advances in commercially available technology provide a near-term option that would greatly enhance maritime domain awareness, and a cost-sharing approach would build confidence among claimants and reduce required expense without impacting sovereignty or surrendering any capability advantage.

Very small satellites, variously called nano satellites, cube satellites, or micro-satellites, can function as medium- to high-resolution imaging satellites that can be built quickly and at low cost and put into orbit in “excess” space on launch vehicles. The image quality of small imaging satellites varies from less than 3 feet to about 16 feet. (For reference, Google Maps currently provides approximately 1.6 feet resolution) A constellation of satellites providing frequently updated imagery of Southeast Asia’s waterways commissioned by countries partnering together should be considered to alleviate the lack of operational information. The whole constellation would cost a fraction of a single traditional satellite. Such an endeavor would strip away much of the fog currently obscuring activity in the region. Uncertainty surrounding maritime incidents, including who participated and where they happened, would diminish.

By providing this level of imagery to all parties interested in the South China Sea, contributors to this platform would be helping Southeast Asian countries develop a greater maritime domain awareness capability than they currently have. In making the imagery available to all who may be interested, there is no question of using the information to one’s own particular advantage, nor of “losing” sovereignty.

Next week’s ADMM Retreat will put the defense ministers of all ASEAN claimant states in a room together. They could take a bold step toward stronger collaboration and deliver another contribution to building greater peace and security throughout ASEAN and, specifically, in the South China Sea. Such an initiative may also gain support from other countries in the region, should ASEAN claimants desire the support. For a small investment, ASEAN’s defense ministers can make a large contribution to their own security and to broader maritime security in Southeast Asia.

Mr. John Schaus is a Fellow with the International Security Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @Schaus_CSIS.  


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