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March 2015 Issue

Promise and Peril in Maritime Asia
Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper

The center of gravity in world affairs has shifted to Asia. No other region will do more to determine whether the 21st century will be a peaceful and prosperous one. For this reason, it is imperative that Pacific nations do everything in their power to reduce the risk of inadvertent or accidental conflict.

The maritime environment in East Asia contains both promise and peril. The Indo-Pacific region is host to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, facilitates huge volumes of regional trade, and boasts abundant natural resources. Competing territorial claims, incidents between neighboring countries, and increasing militarization, however, raise the possibility that an isolated event at sea could become a geopolitical catastrophe.

In the last several years, there have been several serious incidents between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. In 2012, China pressured the Philippines into relinquishing control over the Scarborough Shoal and has occupied the reef since 2012. In 2014, Sino-Vietnamese tensions rose to new heights when China deployed an oil rig near Vietnam’s coast. In the South China Sea, several claimant states have been engaging in lightning-speed land reclamation and development activities, transforming reefs into apparent rocks and islands, and building facilities that may become small military bases on formerly desolate atolls. This is all occurring against a backdrop of informational opacity. Geography makes it difficult to monitor events at sea as they occur, and there has previously been no public, reliable authority in the region for information on maritime developments.

These mounting tensions present a serious conundrum for policymakers. The United States has called repeatedly for all actors in the region to settle peacefully their disputes over territory and maritime boundaries, and encourages the use of international legal mechanisms to do so. Many of the provocative actions that have occurred in the region in recent years constitute incremental coercion, as opposed to overt acts of war. This makes it particularly difficult for the United States to intervene overtly against isolated acts at sea. Moreover, Washington aims to maintain strong political and economic ties with all states involved. If countries in the region continue to take seemingly discrete actions to seize or transform territory or maritime space in East Asia, however, the risk of accidental or inadvertent escalation to serious conflict will continue to increase, and the political and economic status quo in the region may be in jeopardy. The seas and straits in this vital region will face increasing instability if all Pacific nations fail to engage in serious efforts to build confidence and promote cooperation in the region.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) seeks to change this by acting as a source for information on these vital issues. AMTI is an interactive website (http://amti.csis.org) that serves as a platform for regular news, analysis and policy exchange on maritime security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. Conceived of and designed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and launched in November 2014, the website allows users to explore the latest regional developments using interactive maps, read original analysis from top experts in the U.S. and in Asia, view the long maritime history of the region using an interactive timeline, and explore relevant, annotated primary-source documents through a Documents Library. AMTI aims to promote transparency in the Indo-Pacific region in order to encourage a broader public debate over regional issues and foster opportunities for confidence building and diplomatic solutions.

In the coming months, AMTI will continue to expand in scope. It will include new elements that allow users to track commercial shipping in the region, monitor progress on the implementation of international agreements, and even track land reclamation and development efforts in the South China Sea. It will also convene leading experts from around the region to propose concrete and pragmatic solutions to these stubborn disputes, holding conferences and producing forward-looking policy papers.

These maritime tensions also present some opportunities for industry to play a positive role. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam presently have modest naval, coast guard and intelligence capabilities, and will be investing in these areas heavily in the coming years. The United States is committed to helping these states build their capacity in these areas and to improving maritime domain awareness in the region to reduce the risk of surprise and accident. The private sector will be instrumental in furnishing the relevant technology. These are, however, long-term initiatives that will take many years to begin to bear fruit.

In the near term, businesses that have an interest in prosperity and stability in the Pacific should work with think tanks and universities to promote cooperation among states with competing maritime and territorial claims. This includes efforts that assemble experts and leaders from states in the region to help to ease these tensions and assist the parties in moving towards dispute management. Marine and energy-related businesses will see their interests directly threatened if these tensions cannot be defused, and these industries make for ideal partners as we promote cooperation in maritime Asia. For industry and for the international community, the stakes couldn’t be higher.


Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Program and the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Her research expertise includes maritime security, security in East Asia, alliances, and U.S. foreign policy, and she holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. She can be reached at MRapp-Hooper@CSIS.org.


2015:  JAN | FEB | MARCH
2014:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.