Over the past year, as noted in the IISS Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2015, the rising profile of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations has been a noteworthy if unsung feature of the regional security environment. Whether regarded as a public goods imperative in its own right, or as a common denominator basis for defence exercises, SAR resonates as an important cooperative activity among security and maritime safety professionals in the Asia Pacific, a predominantly maritime region. Yet its public profile has until recently lagged behind.
It will be interesting to see at the 14th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue whether recent tragedies – including South Korea’s Sewol ferry sinking, the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and Air Asia flight QZ8501 crashes, and the Rohingya/Bangladeshi migration crisis – can elevate SAR from its unflattering tag as the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of regional security cooperation to a higher political priority. Such incidents have also illuminated gaps in the existing regional and global SAR frameworks, such as the disconnect between the maritime and air search and rescue regimes, coordination problems between states and among national agencies, and the failure of many coastal states in the region to observe basic humanitarian obligations that apply at sea. These enduring shortcomings need to be remembered in spite of progress elsewhere in regional SAR collaboration, including the unprecedented international scope and duration of the MH370 search and locate effort.
Most recently, in the full glare of international media scrutiny, Southeast Asian governments struggled to respond effectively to the rapidly rising influx of boat-borne Rohingya Muslims in 2015 from both fellow ASEAN member Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The complexities of seaborne irregular migration are manifold, but extending SAR and humanitarian support to people in distress at sea is an important consideration. How to do so without encouraging more migrants, or inadvertently abetting organised criminal human-smuggling networks, is a critical concern for governments in the region and beyond. Europe’s belated effort, via the UN, to float a belated comprehensive strategy for stemming migrant flows across the Mediterranean suggests that there are global dimensions to the rising phenomenon of irregular seaborne migration, despite regional differences. International SAR conventions and frameworks may have to be updated at some point to reflect the scale and complexity of these new challenges.
Southeast Asia’s Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers did not appear suddenly, however, but had for many years been ‘out-of-sight, out of mind’. Maritime authorities from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia dealt with them by pushing back arriving boats from their territorial waters – a beggar-thy-neighbour policy that achieved little more than the perpetuation of human misery. However, a sharp spike in the numbers arriving this year has overwhelmed the capabilities of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, forcing a change of approach – and opening up the prospect of a more concerted and comprehensive method of tackling the problem at a regional level.
The regional antecedent of the Rohingya/Bangladeshi outflow was the mass exodus of Vietnamese during the 1970s and 1980s – the original ‘boat people’. The first to leave Vietnam included ethnic Chinese refugees fleeing persecution as relations soured between Hanoi and Beijing. As the exodus continued, it became harder to differentiate political from economic push factors. ‘Compassion fatigue’ set in, leaving large populations stranded in camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, awaiting third-country resettlement. A similarly blurred distinction between Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshi economic migrants also portends a difficult solution. Thailand’s recent crackdown against the people smugglers operating from its shores marks an important step forward, though clearly Myanmar also needs to be a part of the process in order for the root causes to be addressed.
Internal and external coordination remains critical to effective SAR. For example, Indonesia’s response to the Rohingya episode was initially contradictory, with the military emphasising its responsibility to prevent unauthorised entry into territorial waters over and above humanitarian imperatives. Compounding Jakarta’s initially hesitant approach, Indonesia’s newly formed coastguard now shares the civilian search and rescue role with the previous lead agency. Such overlaps among Indonesia’s myriad maritime agencies sometimes boil down to resource battles regarding who has more boats. A lack of clarity on lines of responsibility in Indonesia’s maritime SAR partly explains why no agency was willing to take a clear lead on dealing with the recent Rohingya boat arrivals off Aceh. Reflecting their junior status in Indonesia, civilian maritime agencies are also reluctant to cut across the navy’s trump card mission of sovereignty protection for fear of having their wings clipped.
ASEAN countries already have their work cut out maintaining cohesion in the South China Sea. In that wider diplomatic context, today’s ASEAN meeting in Bangkok to discuss the seaborne migrant issue must, at a minimum, avoid another source of intra-ASEAN maritime divisions from escalating. Establishing a search and rescue framework that replaces the previous reliance on push-backs therefore goes beyond humanitarian considerations.