The rules-based maritime order is not completely adrift

One of Australia's big decks – HMAS Canberra – made its debut appearance at IMDEX Asia in May 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Australian Defence Force/Kev Bristow WB).

Author: See Seng Tan, RSIS

Over two days in May 2019, navy chiefs and maritime experts from across the world gathered in Singapore for the sixth edition of the International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC). The conference is held biennially as part of the Marine Defence Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX Asia), reputedly the Asia Pacific’s premier international maritime defence show.

The glitz and glam that accompany such talk shops fail to hide that little is achieved by way of concrete accomplishments. The 2019 IMSC was striking for the emphatic consensus among its international delegates and participants over the need to strengthen the maritime rules-based order. A number of things are noteworthy about the conference deliberations.

First, the shared perception of the need for a strong and viable rules-based order and the collective will to preserve and enhance it was evident among the participants. The focus of this IMSC was very much on principle rather than power, despite the formidable presence of the world’s most powerful navies. Principles belonging to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were stressed most among delegates.

Participants frequently made the point that the seas are a maritime commons, whose ‘free and equitable’ use can only be effectively ensured through adherence by all signatories to UNCLOS. Crucially, adherence to the entirety of UNCLOS was emphasised, rather than the selective observance shown by some parties — including claims by regional states that do not abide by the terms of UNCLOS.

Second, the participants demonstrated widespread appreciation for the need to establish and implement concrete measures in support of the rules-based order. There have been a growing number of maritime exercises among the region’s navies aimed at developing familiarity with the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). These include the exercise conducted by ASEAN navies with …continue reading