March 21, 2016

Networked Transparency

Constructing a Common Operational Picture of the South China Sea

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 trillion, 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. 

The South China Sea is an opaque, low-information environment.

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. 

Transparency: The Next Phase of the Rebalance 

While this report was being written, U.S. policymakers made two major public commitments linking South China Sea transparency to larger goals of stability and assured access. The first, the Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, lays out what the Department of Defense (DoD) sees as the most pressing challenges facing the region, as well as the most promising openings for future collaboration and improvement. The second, the Maritime Security Initiative, seeks to make these opportunities reality, funding regional capacity-building efforts to the tune of $425 million. Both initiatives rightly prioritize enhancing local partner military abilities, regional cooperation, and maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea, but they focus much more on framing past actions and justifying present initiatives than on laying out a road map for the future. 

Such an effort could be an important part of the broader U.S. strategy for the region. To that end, this report prescribes for the United States a maritime domain awareness road map comprising four lines of effort. We envision coordinated capacity-building for select Southeast Asian militaries through: 

  • A concert of outside stakeholder powers;
  • A U.S.-centric effort relying heavily on U.S.-controlled information collection and distribution; 
  • Expansion of the capacity and reach of extant institutions that perform maritime awareness and information-sharing functions; and
  • An inclusive approach that empowers regional institutions and relies on private-sector partnerships.  

Each of these strategies prioritizes different ways of enhancing maritime domain awareness, and each has distinct benefits and drawbacks. In aggregate, the types of activities constituting these strategies offer policymakers menus from which they can pick and choose to build better maritime domain awareness given political realities, cost constraints, trust, and other salient conditions that may shift over time. Advancing shared situational awareness in practice will likely require drawing on all four strategic approaches, and this report identifies several key near-term tasks for policymakers and operators to render the region’s most volatile waterway into an open, transparent, and stable one.  

Getting Real: A Road Map for the Maritime Security Initiative

As the previous section outlines, making operational transparency of the South China Sea a reality requires a wide array of diplomatic, military, and commercial activity. There is no silver bullet, and the goal of perfect, real-time shared awareness may always remain elusive. Still, drawing on all four approaches described here as a foundation, there are a number of tasks that the United States can begin today to significantly enhance information-sharing about and awareness of who does what in the South China Sea.  

Nontraditional Outreach

Set Up a Big-Data Task Force: The secretary of defense, in partnership with the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and Office of Global Partnerships, should convene a task force of technology company and NGO representatives to brainstorm how commercial-sector solutions can enhance maritime awareness in the South China Sea in support of the cooperative mission threads identified in this paper: IUU fishing, the transnational crime complex, and HA/DR.  

Issue a Call for an “Anti-Gray-Zone” App: The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) – a new Silicon Valley outpost of DoD – should issue a request for proposals (RFP) or a broad agency announcement (BAA) with three functional requirements. First, develop a mobile application that allows commercial vessels transiting the South China Sea to self-report GPS locations, safe passage experiences, and instances of harassment at sea by foreign governments or nongovernment actors. Second, cue the nearest law enforcement entity from friendly or neighboring governments for a real-time emergency response. Third, create a “back end” that accrues and analyzes patterns in reporting data to better position maritime law enforcement and predict most likely safe passage routes over time.  

Propose VMS Transponders for Regional Fishing Vessels: The U.S. representative to the Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission should propose requiring VMS transponders on all legally permitted fishing vessels operating in Asian international waters as a baseline standard and best practice. Leveraging Maritime Security Initiative funding, DoD and the State Department can incentivize support from other member states by creating a fund to subsidize or offset the cost ($500 to $1,000 each) of equipping vessels with the new standard.  

Internal U.S. Decisions

Bring CSII to PACOM: During the Pentagon’s next Program Budget Review, PACOM should submit an “issue paper” requesting the expansion of CSII software to Asian governments. The Joint Staff would need to validate the requirement and establish it as a “program of record” – falling under the name Regional Domain Awareness in SOUTHCOM – but it is low-risk and low-cost (~$3 million) and has high potential to strengthen practices of information-sharing across Southeast Asian governments.  

Use FMF as an Information-Sharing “Carrot”: As a measure to promote a larger and richer ISR information-sharing network in Southeast Asia, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)’s Office of Security Cooperation, in partnership with the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, should jointly determine how to establish information-sharing contingencies as part of FMF cases involving the transfer of U.S. ISR-related technologies to partner governments in Southeast Asia.  

Disseminate Collection from New ISR Deployments: As PACOM prepares to receive MQ-4C Triton reconnaissance UAVs in 2017, it should work with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence to determine the extent to which the processed information collected from new ISR missions conducted by these UAVs can be disseminated to a wider array of regional players. Because situational awareness information can be a strategic asset supporting South China Sea stability, there should be a prejudice against withholding intelligence information from allies and partners on the basis of protecting sources and methods.   Rebalance Global FMF:  The global distribution of U.S. FMF (which includes transfers of ISR and patrol assets) has not recalibrated in response to the U.S. strategic prioritization of the Asia-Pacific as part of a longer-term policy of rebalancing. As of 2015, only 1 percent of FMF supported capacity-building in the Asia-Pacific.  Meaningful change will require sustained attention from the secretary of defense and secretary of state. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, OSD’s Office of Security Cooperation, and the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs should make collective recommendations to the two secretaries on where global compromises in FMF can be made in order to allocate a more realistic proportion of U.S. financing in support of the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  

Start Filling Southeast Asia’s ISR Gap: As a corollary to the above recommendation to rebalance global FMF, the United States should be prioritizing FMF/FMS for certain types of ISR capabilities to certain recipients to expeditiously fill existing regional ISR gaps. In some cases, this may require making exceptions to export control regulations.  Without advocating for the sale of specific platforms to specific customers, priority capability transfers include: 

  • Airborne early-warning capability for Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam; 
  • Maritime patrol and reconnaissance capability for Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia; and 
  • Aerial reconnaissance capabilities for Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.  
  • It should also be considered whether the Philippines and Vietnam merit developing an electronic warfare and signals intelligence capability as part of a long-term force modernization effort.  

Diplomatic Tasks

Start a Multilateral Dialogue to Coordinate Capacity-Building: In bilateral dialogues with Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea, the State Department’s and OSD’s regional policy offices should propose forming a concert among all of them to jointly establish shared maritime awareness requirements and coordinate capacity-building activities. As needed, these should be supplemented with – or even driven by – Track 1.5 meetings to explore sensitive capability-, information-, or cost-sharing possibilities.

Negotiate a Regional MDA Network: Through visits to the region and Track 2 interlocutors, U.S. representatives should probe the ability to bridge the region’s fragmented maritime surveillance architecture. The State Department’s and OSD’s regional policy offices should lead coordination of the effort, which will also need to involve the PACOM Joint Operations Center. Numerous incentives are available for U.S. negotiators to offer to promote information-sharing across the IMAC, CWS, and IFC: sharing track information with PACOM’s Joint Operations Center information, distributing new information collected from forthcoming MQ-4C UAV reconnaissance missions, and extending the offer for regional MDA hubs to use CSII as the technical information-sharing bridge.  

Broach BeiDou Data-Sharing with China: At the next Strategic & Economic Dialogue, the U.S. delegation should raise with China the importance of sharing the tracking information it maintains on Chinese fishing vessels as a strategic signal to the region of a willingness to be both cooperative and transparent. The technology that its BeiDou navigation data relies on is not sensitive, and releasing the locations of commercial vessels does not undermine Chinese military interests. 

All Strategy Is Local

Establishing greater situational awareness in the South China Sea has become a strategic imperative. DoD’s Maritime Security Initiative is a laudable initial response to the complex ways in which the South China Sea security environment is changing. But it cannot be static; it needs to subsequently explain what types of actions will be undertaken by whom, on what timeline, and for what purposes. There must be, in other words, a continuously justified “theory of victory” that relates what the United States says and does in maritime Asia to larger U.S. goals; without that, there is a high risk of strategic drift, bureaucratic inertia, and excessive militarization in the region. The approaches outlined in this report and the immediate recommendations in this concluding section offer concrete ways to relate the ends and means of U.S. policy in maritime Asia. As any strategy should, it presents real choices that involve real risks and costs in order to pursue what statements of U.S. policy claim is worth pursuing: a stable, liberal, and consequently more transparent order in the Asia-Pacific region.  

  1. World Bank, “GDP at market prices,”
  2. Beina Xu, “South China Sea Tensions” (Council on Foreign Relations, May 14, 2014),
  3. Robert Kaplan, “Why the South China Sea is so crucial,”, February 20, 2015,
  4. Xu, “South China Sea Tensions.”
  5. Department of Defense, Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0 (2011),


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