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Search and rescue operations could help counter South China Sea tensions

Amid ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed to constitute an eminent persons and experts group to provide specialist advice on setting up two so-called hotline platforms to focus on maritime search and rescue operations and rapid responses to maritime emergencies. The initiative is part of China's attempts to work with ASEAN toward implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a regional proposal to curb conflict in the region, and to step up consultations on a more binding Code of Conduct.

     The move also comes against the backdrop of two major disasters in the region: the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 bound for Beijing that went missing in March 2014 over the South China Sea (part of the debris has now been discovered washed ashore on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean); and the crash in December 2014 of Air Asia flight QZ8501, en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore.

Accident-prone region

It is fair to say that such disasters can happen anywhere in the oceans and the volatile South China Sea region is no exception. A large volume of cargo (valued at about $3 trillion) such as oil and gas, bulk and dry cargo, and containers carried on board ships transit through the South China Sea. Likewise, the South China Sea is a rich fishing ground for many countries. Interestingly, the air space over the South China Sea also experiences a high volume of air traffic bound for major destinations in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as trans-Pacific flights to the U.S. On top of the man-made tensions and issues, the South China Sea has its fair share of natural phenomenon such as typhoons and storms which adversely impact maritime activity, particularly fishing. Given these conditions, the probability of accidents and incidents involving ships, aircraft and fishing vessels is high and require search and rescue support.

     While many regional analysts dismiss the code of conduct proposal as overly ambitious, there are at least six reasons to pursue and develop a framework for cooperative search and rescue (SAR) arrangements that go beyond the vexed regional security environment.

     First, the regional countries are signatories to a number of international conventions and agreements related to providing SAR support for maritime and aircraft accidents at sea. At the regional level, the South China Sea littorals have agreed to cooperate in the field of SAR operations. The 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea states that "pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes," the state parties should "explore or undertake cooperative activities" such as search and rescue operations. Likewise, the more recent ASEAN defense ministers meeting plus mandates SAR cooperation.

     Second, an open channel of communication and integration of national SAR capabilities is critical. The coast guard and maritime safety agencies of the South China Sea littorals need to establish hotlines for networking and sharing of information for a coordinated response. The proposed hotline for maritime search and rescue and response arrangements can deal with emergencies in the South China Sea.

     Third is the idea -- supported by various regional countries -- of converting the islands and features in the South China Sea, the proverbial "unsinkable aircraft carriers," into what has been dubbed "lily-pads" for SAR operations. In the South China Sea, there are at least five islands that have airstrips with supporting aviation infrastructure and are capable of accepting both civilian and military large and medium-sized aircraft. These airstrips are controlled by Vietnam (Spratly Island -- 550 meters), the Philippines (Thitu Island -- 1,000 meters), Malaysia (Swallow Reef -- 1,368 meters), Taiwan (Itu Aba -- 1,195 meters) and China (Fiery Cross -- 3,000 meters). China is believed to be building another airstrip on Subi Reef. Apart from the runways, a variety of infrastructure has been set up on these mainly uninhabited outcrops for military use.

     In the above context, the fourth key issue could be the possibility of setting up a South China Sea SAR sub-center on one of the reclaimed islands. This could be on the Fiery Cross reef which has been at the center of controversy in recent discourse on reclamation. If China agrees to the above suggestion, which is highly unlikely, then Beijing's announcements that the facilities on the reclaimed features are "public goods at sea" could be the harbinger of a new security dynamic in the region.

     Fifth is the concern about regional capacity to respond to SAR emergencies. It is worth noting that SAR operations are inherently platform-intensive, time sensitive and require urgent response, as any delay in rendering assistance can be fatal. Among the South China Sea littorals, the Chinese fleet comprising warships and patrol vessels equipped with helicopters, amphibious ships, and amphibious maritime patrol aircraft are the best "first responders"; the hospital ship Peace Ark, a symbol of Chinese "soft power," is capable of rendering medical support. In this context, the Chinese naval and civilian deployment in the southern Indian Ocean during SAR operations for the MH370 is noteworthy.

     The other South China Sea littorals such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have limited capacity to undertake sustained SAR operations due to lack of capability. The Philippines suffers from a number of capability gaps and has now begun to build up its naval capability which is focused on securing the islands and reefs. Likewise, Vietnam and Malaysia have a few large ships to undertake speedy and sustained SAR operations.

     While the above focuses on civil operations, it is fair to assume that SAR requirements could also involve submarines. Several submarine-related accidents have been recorded worldwide and in the past 100 years, nearly 170 submarines have been lost in non-combat operations. SAR operations for such platforms are particularly sensitive given that submarine operations are generally covert. China, Malaysia and Vietnam have submarines and the Philippines is keen to acquire these platforms. Most modern submarines are fitted with rescue equipment, however, external assistance through submarine rescue tenders (equipped with diving bells) is essential for the evacuation of crew. The regional capacity to respond to submarine accidents is limited and such rescue operations would be further hampered by the secretive nature of submarine deployments and in most cases, states are unwilling to share that data. It has been noted in discussions at official regional security forums that "with the increasing number of submarines operating in the congested and confined water space, it is, perhaps, no exaggeration to say that it is an accident waiting to happen."

     Sixth, interoperability (training, exercises, operating procedures, communications and language) is critical for any SAR cooperation. In this context, a dialogue should be started among the maritime forces of the ASEAN Regional Forum (a 27-member grouping comprising ASEAN countries, China, the U.S., Japan, India and others) through the Disaster Relief Exercise, a biennial event launched in 2009 to help promote regional SAR responses. This would be an important initiative. Further, it would be particularly useful to establish a dedicated cooperative response mechanism for submarine accidents.

     The China-ASEAN initiative to set up an expert group on the issue is noteworthy and the proposed hotlines for maritime emergencies, too, would go a long way in addressing the region's SAR weaknesses. Significantly, the initiative could also be a new model for cooperation between China and other claimants in the South China Sea. However, China must address a number of issues that have accentuated the China threat and caused mistrust among regional countries. These have generated strong anti-China sentiments among some ASEAN members, which are now collectively challenging China despite differences among themselves. There are visible signs of naval build-up by ASEAN navies that could potentially undermine undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea. Although China has claimed that it has stopped reclamation activities in the South China Sea and may just be involved in applying finishing touches, Beijing does not appear to be perturbed by the reactions and responses from the ASEAN countries, given that its military and naval capability dwarfs their combined combat strength.

Vijay Sakhuja is director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. A former naval officer, he is the author of "Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century" and co-author of a forthcoming academic work, "Climate Change and the Bay of Bengal."

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