Maritime security: Cambodia's take

Cambodian Navy sailors stand in formation on a Chinese naval patrol boat during a hand over ceremony at a Cambodian naval base at Ream in Sihanoukville province. Reuters Cambodia perceives regional maritime security cooperation as a means to promote mutual understanding and build trust. However, capacity is the main constraint to effectively implement international maritime laws and for Cambodia to actively contribute to a rules-based maritime order, writes Chheang Vannarith.

Maritime security is a top regional security agenda as major powers are vying for maritime power expansion. Cooperation on non-traditional maritime issues such as piracy, illegal fishing, natural disasters and humanitarian relief, search and rescue, and human trafficking would help promote trust and lead to the strengthening of regional cooperation in the maritime sector. Cambodia's perspective on regional maritime cooperation mechanisms is largely defined by domestic maritime security issues and needs.

As its maritime capacity is limited, Cambodia needs assistance from international friends and organisations to enhance its ability to address maritime security threats such as illegal fishing, transnational organised crime committed at sea, and threats to the marine environment. There are, however, constraints. The most obvious are a lack of financial and human resources.

Coupled with that is a weak legal framework and poor coordination among the relevant ministries and agencies. There is also a lack of hard infrastructure and military assets such as battleships, combat boats and vessels. To promote institutional capacity and inter-agency coordination on maritime security, Cambodia created the National Committee on Maritime Security (NCMS) in December 2009.

The centre's main missions are to enhance maritime sovereignty and strengthen the enforcement of rules and good order at sea. NCMS is also a national mechanism to facilitate coordination among institutions and ministries working on maritime affairs. There are four operational principles of the NCMS: maritime domain awareness; sustainable protection of national interests at sea; deterrence of all maritime threat; and rapid response to incidents at sea.

Cambodia has a four-point maritime security policy. Firstly, working together with relevant ministries to develop a legal procedure and framework, and strengthen institutional capacity. Secondly, strengthening the role and capacity of naval forces to enhance closer cooperation between related agencies in order to provide security and safety for economic activities.

Thirdly, building partnership with other countries to promote an understanding of common maritime challenges and designing solutions. And fourthly, safeguarding territorial waters and resources within Cambodia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to ensure that its marine resources are sustainably governed. To facilitate the joint operation of combined forces, the NCMS has constructed its own front line command structure located at the Ream Maritime Base.

Connecting key institutions such as the maritime forces, national police forces, and officers from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Transport, Fishery Department, Customs, and Ministry of Environment has improved, although with limited results, to implement maritime policy. Nonetheless, there is an urgent need to strengthen the capacity the NCMS. As part of regional cooperation, Cambodia sent mid-level officers to Changi naval base in Singapore for maritime security information-infusion.

Established in 2009, the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) serves as the regional maritime information hub to enhance maritime situation awareness and provide early warning triggers and actionable information to cue timely regional responses. Cambodia has also signed the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), actively participated in Asean-led cooperation mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Asean Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM), ADMM Plus, Asean Maritime Forum and Extended Asean Maritime Forum. At the sub-regional level, it also participates in the Gulf of Thailand (GOT) Maritime Law Enforcement Interoperability Initiatives.

Cambodia has been advocating for a robust, rules-based regional maritime order. The Kingdom is also a party to four 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea and the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Cambodia supports early conclusion of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea and the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea in order to promote confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy in the disputed waters.

Narrowing the capacity gap in maritime security should be one the core areas of regional maritime cooperation. Cambodia needs more international support in strengthening its capacity to address maritime security threats. As it is, maritime domain awareness and expertise on international maritime laws are limited.

International assistance is needed to enhance national legal frameworks and institutions on maritime affairs. Cambodia perceives the mechanism for regional maritime security cooperation as a means to promote mutual understanding and trust building, foster practical cooperation, and facilitate international partnerships and collaborations to deal with non-traditional security issues and threats. However, capacity is the main constraint of Cambodia to effectively implement international maritime laws and actively contribute to a rules-based maritime order.

Aligning national maritime policy with regional maritime agenda and initiatives, building institutional capacity, and promoting multi-stakeholder dialogue and collaborative research on maritime issues will enhance Cambodia's contribution to the maintenance of good order at sea in the region. Chheang Vannarith is visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

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