The EAMF is fighting for space in an already crowded and complicated geopolitical context and geography
Regional partners contributed in various ways including to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) in 2006. This was the first regional inter-governmental agreement to promote cooperation against piracy and maritime armed robbery in Asia. At the EAS in November 2011, Japan proposed to establish a forum to discuss maritime cooperation amongst the EAS member countries. The ASEAN concurred and the first EAMF took place in October 2012, back-to-back with the AMF. Since then, the EAMF has been held, with participation of EAS member countries and experts, as a Track 1.5 forum. The 1st Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum was held in Manila, Philippines, on 5 October 2012. It was chaired by Erlinda F. Basilio, Undersecretary for Policy of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines alongside the 3rd AMF. It was attended by government and non-government delegates from the EAS countries, namely, the ten ASEAN Member States, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea (ROK), Russian Federation, and the United States (US) along with the ASEAN Secretariat. The ASEAN and EAS leaders were enthused to start discussions so that opportunities to address common challenges relating to maritime issues in the region could be grasped. The EAMF was to build upon the AMF and, thus, the EAMF is another body with ASEAN centrality. The EAMF was seen as track 1.5 diplomacy with cross-cutting maritime issues that concerned all the EAS countries. The focus of the first meeting was on the importance of the UNCLOS in the current context; maritime connectivity with attendant capacity building; infrastructure upgradation; training for seafarers, of which several ASEAN countries and India, in particular, had a very large number; protection of the marine environment; and promoting fishery regimes; besides identifying best practices for cooperation. On the relevance of the UNCLOS, maritime connectivity, and protecting the marine environment and fisheries, there were various interventions by both EAS and ASEAN members, and each one focused on cooperation based on existing documents and institutions, including the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, amongst others. The main thought leadership was from Singapore, the US, Australia, ROK, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Indonesia, and Russia.
Maritime security was initially brought up as a major concern at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which sought comprehensive guidelines for maritime security.
The 7th and 8th Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forums were both held in Vietnam in 2019 and 2020. Regional maritime cooperation over the past years, including initiatives to cope with marine pollution, illegal fishing, and sustainable exploitation of marine resources were discussed; multifaceted challenges facing the region, such as transnational maritime crimes, ocean acidification, the safety of fishermen and seamen, and unsettled disputes at sea were amongst the focus areas. The participants supported the objectives of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which details maritime cooperation and security as important attributes. The 11th AMF and the 9th EAMF were held in Brunei in November 2021. They welcomed the ASEAN Leaders' Declaration on the Blue Economy adopted during the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits. At the meeting, several countries spoke about the critical importance of UNCLOS. Some expressed serious concerns while others opposed unilateral attempts to change the existing situation by strong arm tactics in the East and South China Seas. China was the clear target. Most members drew attention to the significance of a rules-based maritime order. Efforts to take EAMF to a more track 1.5 dialogue were stressed.
The participants supported the objectives of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which details maritime cooperation and security as important attributes.
The EAMF focuses on pursuing policy dialogue, discussion, and briefings by Member States on their concerns and achievements, which could be useful to other members. It seems to be a process and the EAMF functions much like other ASEAN bodies that do not have programmes or projects under them, which are systematically funded and pursued. ASEAN does not have its own sectoral institution on maritime issues that mirrors the EAMF. Consequently, the agenda of the EAMF is driven by the countries of the EAS, who are not ASEAN members. Among these, the countries that take the lead are those that have resources to fund programmes. This is why Japan, Australia, China, the US, and the ROK to some extent, are in the lead. Most link programmes initiated under the EAMF to programmes they are already undertaking under the EAS or ARF rubric. India does not take much initiative in this regard. However, India has cooperation between the AoIP and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) agreed upon at the ASEAN India summit in 2021. India has enunciated its IPOI at the 14th EAS and, therefore, it works in a broader context, hoping that some of those ideas would find resonance between programmes that the EAMF undertakes. However, while India is working with ASEAN countries on IPOI and AoIP, there is no evidence of EAMF having come up in that, even though the programmes under AoIP-IPOI cooperation often concern maritime issues. The growing number of bilateral engagements with ASEAN countries and select EAS countries, the larger role in the ADMM+ and the emergence of Indo-Pacific related initiatives like the IPOI and Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) announced on 24 May 2022, relegates the EAMF to fight for relevance in the India-ASEAN-EAS matrix. When Japan proposed the EAMF, it sought internationalisation of SCS issues through a forum where non-ASEAN partners beyond China could raise the SCS regularly. Within ASEAN, the SCS was problematic and lacked consensus. To obtain ASEAN support, the EAMF was built upon the AMF and sought track 1.5 discussions. EAMF members now find its relevance reduced. Some analysts believe that only Indonesia and Vietnam are fond of AMF/EAMF and step in to hold meetings when others falter. Recent meetings merely reported what transpired under other arrangements, but made no meaningful contribution to policy. Since much has changed in the Indo-Pacific, it appears that EAMF is losing momentum. How to make it relevant when its proponents have lost interest is the main and problematic question.
India has enunciated its IPOI at the 14th EAS and, therefore, it works in a broader context, hoping that some of those ideas would find resonance between programmes that the EAMF undertakes.
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Gurjit Singh has served as Indias ambassador to Germany Indonesia Ethiopia ASEAN and the African Union. He is the Chair of CII Task Force on ...Read More +