Rise of the white hulls in Southeast Asia

Rise of the white hulls in Southeast Asia

Jay Tristan Tarriela |

By the turn of the twenty-first century, coast guard organizations in Southeast Asia have been emerging as the new maritime constabulary force. Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam have established or improved their respective coast guard organizations independent of the navy. The mandates of these agencies are not limited to maritime-security and law enforcement, but also includes maritime-safety and marine-environmental protection.

While there appears to be some regional momentum behind the creation of coast guards in each country, it is worthy to note that the geographic location of these countries coincides with the Japanese sea trade route starting from the South China Sea to Malacca Strait. While some scholars argue that coast guard organizations in the region are rising due to the territorial conflicts stirred up by the rise of China, current perspectives are still deficient on rationally explaining how these militarily inferior white hulls fit into military strategies that aim to secure territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Other leading maritime scholars argue that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has led states to recognize the need to create another maritime agency that is different from the navy to enforce laws at sea, manage maritime resources, and safeguard national interests. However, this argument does not explain why the upsurge in coast guard development did not immediately transpire after UNCLOS entered into force in 1996 and why such an effect could only be found in the Southeast Asian region.

Although, it is known that Japan had been the main supporter of the emergence in coast guard, it is crucial to understand how its imperialist past was completely forgotten by sovereign sensitive countries in the region. The Japan Coast Guard’s role was only highlighted during the early 2000s when the spike of piracy incidents had increased in Malacca Strait. Nevertheless, this claim does not address the issues on region’s sovereign sensitivities and the imperialist legacy of Japan.

Citing the experience of the United States in 2003, when they proposed the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) to counter piracy in the region both Indonesia and Malaysia rejected this plan. However, when Japan hosted HACGAM and introduced the Asian Maritime Security Initiative (AMSI), without an ounce of criticism, it was unanimously approved. Likewise, it is noteworthy to mention that Indonesia and Malaysia even asked Japan to help them build their coast guards of their own patterned before the Japan Coast Guard to address these non-traditional security threats.

Still, the question remains why they trusted Japan? To answer this, it is necessary to look at the past engagements of JCG to these littoral states. In 1969, Japan being the major user of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, faced a serious problem because a number of Japanese supertankers had been involved in maritime incidents. For the littoral states to allow Japan in taking the lead role for maritime safety improvement of the strait and not to see it as an intervention from the major user, Tokyo tapped the Japanese shipowners to be its representative in improving the safety of its commerce in the strait, which until now is called us the Malacca Strait Council .

The shipowners then commissioned Japan Maritime Safety Agency (name of JCG then) to conduct a hydrographic survey and other maritime safety-related projects. It has to be emphasized that the Hydrographic Bureau of JMSA which used to be under the Japanese Imperial Navy before has the most sophisticated equipment and technical knowledge compared with other countries because of its long experience even before the Second World War. The approach of Japan to engage Southeast Asia did not just end through maritime safety cooperation.

In 1975, the Japanese tanker, Showa Maru carrying a cargo of 237,000 crude oil ran aground the Strait of Malacca and spilled almost 4,500 tons which reached the shorelines of Singapore. This incident was used by Japan to boost the cooperative role of JCG in the region by providing experts related to maritime search and rescue, maritime disaster prevention and marine environmental protection. Coupled with international awareness due to numerous tanker incidents that resulted to the passage of MARPOL 73/78, Japan has used this trend to engage Southeast Asian countries once again.

Moreover, in this particular decade, Japan had delivered two brand new fast craft search and rescue coast guard vessels to the Philippines as part of its reparation payment in 1973. These two strategic approaches of Japan starting from the maritime safety than to marine environmental protection have diminished the militarist identity of JCG but rather buttressed their intention of positive cooperation to achieve a maritime order that would benefit not just Japan but the entire region.

The two-decade-long maritime cooperation before the piracy attacks spike in Malacca Strait had softened the ground for Japan. JCG’s presence in the region to ensure the safety of Japan’s sea trade route at the same time helping the sovereign sensitive Southeast Asian countries for capacity building in maritime safety and marine environmental protection served as an opening to change their perception towards Japan’s imperialist past. Thus, when the Japanese freighter, MV Tenyu in 1998 and cargo ship, MV Alondra Rainbow in 1999 were attacked by the pirates, it was easy for Japan to seek for their cooperation to the point of building their own coast guards.

Courtesy: The National Interest 

The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Maritime Study Forum. 


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