March 21, 2016

CNAS Releases Report on Common Operational Picture of the South China Sea


As tensions rise in the South China Sea, five Center for a New American Security (CNAS) experts have written a report arguing in favor of, and creating a roadmap for, a shared maritime domain awareness (MDA) for the South China Sea. The report, “Networked Transparency: Constructing a Common Operational Picture of the South China Sea,” argues that creating such an MDA network would alleviate the opaque nature of operations in the South China Sea and therefore lower the chance of conflict.

The full report can be found here:

The five authors of the report are:

Please find the introduction of the report below:

The South China Sea is strategically important and resource-rich, crucial to the lifeblood of U.S. and Indo-Pacific economies. Roughly one-third, or $5 billion, of the world’s commercial shipping passes through its waterways annually. The South China Sea is home to proven reserves of at least 7 billion barrels of oil, as well as what is estimated to be 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Fifty percent of all global oil tanker shipments pass through the region. And these shipments are vital to meeting the energy needs of most Asian countries, providing 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy, two-thirds of South Korean imports, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports.

It is also a highly contested space, and the proximate sources of tensions are well-known. Ongoing sovereignty disputes among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei lead to competition over hundreds of islands, reefs, and reclaimed land. The strategic implications for growing tensions among these claimants are profound. Together these nations produce $11.7 trillion of global gross domestic product (GDP) and are home to a third of the world’s population, including half a billion who live within 100 miles of the South China Sea coastline alone.

Yet underlying these resource and sovereignty tensions is something even more pernicious: The South China Sea is an opaque, low-information environment. Most South China Sea islets are hundreds of miles from shore, making it especially difficult for governments and commercial entities to monitor events at sea when they occur. This dearth of situational awareness worsens regional competition in the South China Sea. The region is already rife with rapid military modernization, resurgent nationalism, the blurring of economic and security interests, and heightened geopolitical wrangling with China (by great and small powers alike). Left unchecked, these pressures make conflict more likely by tempting major military accidents and crises that could drag down the economic and political future of the region.

These negative trends converging in the South China Sea also create missed opportunities among regional stakeholders for positive gains. South China Sea stakeholders have many transnational and economic interests of growing importance in common – from counterpiracy to maritime commerce and disaster response – but the competitive nature of the South China Sea today impedes collective action to solve shared problems. States have trouble engaging in cooperation, even when it would advance shared interests. This challenges the foundations of a stable regional order. The more states believe they live in an anarchical neighborhood, the more likely the region sees the worst of geopolitics: security dilemmas, arms races, and policies motivated by fear and greed rather than reason and restraint.

There is no silver bullet to entirely resolve the historical, strategic, and technological factors that are contributing to a more contentious security environment in Asia. Nevertheless, there remain practical and politically viable initiatives that could have a substantial effect in mitigating insecurities while fostering cooperation on issues of common interest.

This report proposes that enhanced, shared maritime domain awareness (MDA) – that is, a near-real time understanding of air and sea activities – in the South China Sea is a realistic means of addressing some of the underlying and proximate problems facing this strategic waterway. A maritime domain awareness architecture may engender cooperation in a region devoid of trust, prevent misunderstandings, encourage operational transparency, and lead to capacity-building efforts that contribute to the regional public good. This study explores how advances in commercial technology services, regional information-sharing, and security cooperation can contribute to enhanced regional security. We believe these advances can do so by moving the region closer to establishing a common, layered, and regularly updated picture of air and maritime activity in the South China Sea – a common operational picture (COP) for a tempestuous domain.

The U.S. military has long relied on a common operational picture to enable command and control linking strategic decisionmakers located at headquarters elements and operational units located in the field. A COP amounts to a visualization tool for situational awareness, described more narrowly by the military as “a single identical display of relevant information shared by more than one command that facilitates collaborative planning and assists all echelons to achieve situational awareness.” This domain-agnostic military definition conveys that a COP is a tool for maintaining situational awareness, but not how situational awareness occurs. That requires the confidence-building, technical capacity, and commitment to stability-promoting transparency that this report explores.

The authors are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or call 202-457-9409.