East Asia’s oceans are sources of massive wealth and vital highways of world trade, but the East China Sea and South China Sea are riven with state-to-state hostilities, making its many disputed territories flashpoints of potential conflict.

Exacerbating this risk at a time when regional powers such as China and Japan are upgrading their navies is the lack of any consultative regional security body to serve as a conflict resolution and crisis management body.

These risks, and some potential solutions, were addressed at last month’s multinational Seoul Defense Forum, which welcomed vice-ministerial level delegates and military professionals from around the region and elsewhere in the world to the Chosun Hotel in the South Korean capital.

However, while the conference was attended by a wide range of representatives, one key regional security player was notably absent: organizers told journalists that North Korean delegates had been invited, but declined to attend.

The fact that oceans, which cover 70% of the world’s surface, are rich in resources and critical for international commerce is well known. But there is growing concern about how those resources are being harvested and depleted.

Canada’s Deputy Minister of National Defence Jody Thomas noted that the oceans produced 167 million tons of fish – 17% of the world’s animal protein – in 2014, and that marine biodiversity is responsible for a third of all oxygen generated globally. Currently, two-thirds of the world’s oil and a third of all goods are transported by sea. But she said the seas now face threats that current international agreements and customarily accepted practices may not be able to handle.

Lack of enforcement

“Over the last 3.5 decades, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provided a framework for freedom of the seas,” said Thomas. “That treaty is a key component of a rules-based international order, but that order is threatened by increased militarization.

“The UN Law of the Sea is a key framework, referred to as the ‘Constitution of the world’s seas and oceans’,” added Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute of International Policy. “Its deficiency is that it lacks enforcers.”

Lack of enforcers is particularly problematic as maritime spaces are more vulnerable than terrestrial spaces. They are connected and traversed by international actors, but – unlike on land – cannot be bordered with walls or fenced off.  This lack of enclosure enables freer movement by global law-breakers than on land.

“The connectiveness of seas and oceans is a physical fact we easily forget, but the only fences at sea are the ones we put there,” Graham said. “We cannot assume there will be a single international order in the future… [which] will make maritime security coop[eration] more complicated. Transnational population movements, piracy and smuggling are no respecters of the imaginary fence posts of the sea.”

Sources of conflict: slide from Seoul Defense Dialog. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
Sources of conflict: slide from Seoul Defense Dialogue. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Plethora of flashpoints

In East Asia, maritime risks are particularly high. The “hyper-populated Indo-Pacific is home to half of the world’s people, and these waters are under great strain,” said Graham. The region is riven not just by non-strategic, but often-violent competition over fishery resources; its waters are also subject to a range of inter-state territorial disputes.

In Northeast Asia, Japan and Russia still have not signed a peace treaty ending World War II, and the two nations both claim ownership of the Kurile Islands – or what Japan calls its “Northern Territories.” Japan also disputes the South Korea-occupied islets known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to its south with China.

South Korea disputes ownership of the Ieodo reef off its southeast coast with China, which has proclaimed an Air Defense Identification Zone over the area, Meanwhile, the inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea has been the scene of deadly clashes, most notably in 2010, when a Corvette was a sunk and an island shelled by North Korea.

Moreover, the seas have provided Pyongyang with wriggle room to evade international sanctions. “Gaps in maritime domain awareness have left room for North Korea to evade UN Security Council sanctions,” said Thomas, citing ship-to-ship oil transfers and smuggling of weapons, coal and narcotics. “We need surveillance and information sharing to support these sanctions.”

China faces off with Taiwan over the Taiwan Straits, and is engaged in disputes with multiple claimants over a wide range of islands, islets and reefs in the South China Sea, a critical international waterway.   The United States – and more recently, its allies Australia, France, Japan and the United Kingdom – pursue freedom-of-navigation operations off China’s man-made islands in the area. Complicating the situation further, many of the territories are also disputed among ASEAN members.

Territorial face-offs and naval expansion

“South China Sea militarization concerns Canada,” said Thomas, who detailed weapons systems deployed by China on disputed features in the Spratly chain. “These actions are destabilizing and do not contribute to maritime security.”

South-China-Sea_ATMaps_2018_small-b

Adding to the region’s maritime risks is the fact that the central power, China, is engaged in a mind-boggling spectrum of territorial face-offs, while also launching a massive naval expansion – most notably with its new, expeditionary aircraft carriers. Partly in response to this, other regional powers are upgrading their naval assets. Japan this year activated a marine infantry unit and is using its powerful helicopter carriers to project power as far as the Indian Ocean.

But China is also bringing a creative range of new tactical assets to the table. It is reclaiming land, building weaponized islands that dominate the South China Sea and is deploying a new force that can act effectively in low-intensity conflict – weaponized fishing fleets that operate as de facto seaborne militias.

Even so, Beijing lacks experience in the maritime space. “China’s international status is new,” said Pang Zhongjing, dean of the Institute of China Marine Development Studies, at China’s Ocean University. “China is a late developer.”

How to manage Asia’s maritime risks?

While many risks in the Western hemisphere can be managed through the offices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – made up of 57 participating states, including Russia and the United States – no such body exists in East Asia.

Amid a hive of potential conflict flashpoints, there is a “relatively low” level of crisis resolution mechanisms in East Asia, South Korea’s Deputy Minister for Defense Policy Yeo Suk-joo said. “We should integrate maritime consultative bodies which are currently dispersed and establish a maritime consultative body solely for East Asia,” he suggested.

On the diplomatic front, Dang Quang Minh, acting director of Vietnam’s Institute of Defense Strategic Studies suggested that regular regional fora such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting should all be leveraged “to pursue the common interests of the region and maritime security challenges in particular… they cannot be replaced by other mechanisms.”

Graham noted that a proposal for a North East Asia maritime security body had been put forward at Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Other delegates called for a resurrection of the Beijing-sponsored “Six-Party Talks” format, and for its role to be expanded. The talks were designed to deal with the North Korean nuclear crisis and included the key players in Northeast Asia: China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States. However, they have been dormant since North Korea pulled out in 2009.

Potential bodies to manage risk and crises in maritime East Asia - slide from Seoul Defense Dialog. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
Potential bodies to manage risks and crises in maritime East Asia – slide from Seoul Defense Dialogue. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Communication is essential. “China needs to do more to reassure the region that it is peaceful and rules-based,” Pang admitted, though he warned, “Others need to be careful not to overreact to our sea power.”

Yeo also suggested upgrading multinational naval cooperation, navy-to-navy talks, combined maritime exercises and exchanges of personnel.

Minh, acting director of Vietnam’s Institute of Defense Strategic Studies, called for the development of supervision and inspection mechanisms, but agreed with Yeo that military, as well as diplomatic channels, could prove fertile ground for conflict management. “During the Cold War era, militaries were tools of war,” he said. “Today, in the era of integration and cooperation, defense must be a means to prevent wars and conflicts and build peace and mutual trust among countries.”

Even so, regional inter-military sensitivities are preventing better cooperation. China was excluded from the RIMPAC multinational exercises this year by the United States because of its militarization of the South China Sea. And currently, Japanese participation in an upcoming regional naval review off South Korea’s Jeju Island this month is under threat as Seoul demands that participating Japanese assets not fly ‘Rising Sun’ naval ensigns, citing historical sensitivities.

Still, there are some grounds for optimism as a number of initiatives are underway.

“South Korea and several friends – this is confidential – are participating to prevent North Korea’s illegal ship-to-ship oil transfers at sea,” Yeo confided, a likely reference to shared satellite image intelligence data and possible interdiction operations.

In the South China Sea, Pang referred to consultations between China and ASEAN as one area where progress is underway. “A single draft code of conduct was released, so both China and ASEAN and others see this as progress,” he said.

Canada’s Thomas, who had expressed her concern about China’s militarization of the South China Sea, noted that Ottawa supports “efforts by China and ASEAN to create a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea… international cooperation is encouraging.”