The Year to Come in Asia's Seas

By Mira Rapp-Hooper
Saturday, December 27, 2014, 10:22 AM

The latest issue of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reviews the most important maritime security developments in Asia in 2014. AMTI’s expert analysts also look ahead, highlighting what they argue are likely to be among the most important regional maritime security events of 2015. Here is a roundup of these anticipated developments.

Nicholas Khoo notes that late 2014 brought some cause for optimism, with Asian leaders calling for cooperation on South China Sea issues at APEC and ASEAN meetings in November. Whether this rhetoric translates into action is another story, however, argues Rory Medcalf. Medcalf states that China seems to be “talking the talk” on risk reduction in the region, but the big question for 2015 is whether or not Beijing will “walk the walk” on the confidence building measures it has agreed to with the United States, and a crisis hotline it has pledged to institute with Japan. This Sino-Japanese crisis mechanism, Tetsuo Kotani notes, is desperately needed to defuse tensions in the East China Sea, but could be derailed by two major sets of events. The first is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is sure to engage nationalist rhetoric in both Japan and China. The second is the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will continue to move towards a reinterpretation of Collective Self Defense, allowing Japan to take a more active defense role in the region, and permitting the revision of the US-Japan Bilateral Defense Guidelines in early 2015. If China and Japan are to keep crisis coordination on track despite these developments, Tokyo should give Beijing advanced notice of its defense guidelines revisions, Kotani argues.

There seems to be little doubt that the South China Sea will continue to be a hotspot in 2015. Bonnie Glaser argues that the Second Thomas Shoal may become the flashpoint of the New Year if the USS Sierra Madre slips off the reef and Chinese law enforcement vessels move in and take control of it. Zhu Feng argues that China is likely to return another oil rig to waters near Vietnam, reigniting 2014 tensions between those two countries.

Ernest Bower argues, meanwhile, that ASEAN countries are likely to be increasingly vocal in their support for the Philippines in its international arbitration against China because South East Asian states’ trust in Beijing is wearing thin. Matthew Waxman notes that the arbitral tribunal may rule on whether or not it has jurisdiction to hear the case in 2015. Because jurisdictional issues are so intertwined with the merits of the case itself, this may take until 2016, however. Waxman also notes that as the arbitration proceeds, it may throw into sharp relief two problematic issues for the United States. The first is that when it comes to states’ sovereignty claims over contested land features, the United States claims neutrality. Its exhortations that the parties settle disputes through international legal mechanisms, however, increasingly mean that it must give at least implicit support to the Philippines, a treaty ally that is pursuing arbitration despite the fact that China refuses to do so. Another point of awkwardness is the fact that the United States itself has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and even though it treats its provisions as customary international law, its endorsement of UNCLOS-related arbitration may seem hypocritical.

If it can remain focused on maritime Asia despite other pressing global crises, the United States is, however, on track to deepen its engagement with allies and partners in the region in 2015, argues Michael Green. It will strengthen alliance cooperation with Japan, partially lift its arms embargo on Vietnam, and continue to implement the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation agreement that was penned this year. As Renato Cruz de Castro notes, however, the constitutionality of the ECDA is currently being contested in the Philippines, and a Supreme Court decision on whether or not the agreement in its current form can stand is expected in early 2015.

Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region, Richard Rossow argues that India will continue to move away from its traditional stance of non-alignment because it is increasingly concerned about China’s ability to project power in the Indian Ocean. Chang-Hoon Shin looks to the possibility that China and South Korea might finally negotiate a maritime boundary, which could resolve the status of a long-disputed land feature, as well as defuse fishing-related tensions and pave the way for future cooperation between Seoul and Beijing. And as Taiwan looks to its 2016 presidential elections, Yann-Huei Song notes that early posturing between the two main political parties may place South China Sea issues at center stage as the parties debate the Philippines vs. China arbitration, as well as the merits of Taiwan’s U-shaped (11-dash) line. Finally, Admiral Gary Roughead argues that 2015 will be the year of the submarine, as Australia looks to replace its Collins Class submarine and China and India increasingly focus on their undersea nuclear deterrents. Roughead also reminds readers to watch for increased efforts by China to engage in naval cooperation with other states in the region.

AMTI’s analysts have suggested a wide variety of likely 2015 developments, but a few common themes emerge. One is the fact that domestic politics—whether it is the United States and Sequestration, Japan and Collective Self Defense, the Philippines and the ECDA, or Taiwan and the 11-Dash Line—are likely to be a key factor that shapes stability and security in maritime Asia next year. The second is that whether one considers growing support in the region for the Philippines’ case, or the tradeoffs that the United States faces as it contemplates its own position with respect to the case, international arbitration over maritime issues may simply be politics by other means. A third theme, which is perhaps the most important question raised by AMTI’s year-end analysis, is the question of whether forward progress can be made on crisis-avoidance and confidence-building measures, even as significant domestic and international legal developments give states justification for abandoning these pursuits. Here’s hoping for an affirmative answer, and for peaceful and prosperous year in maritime Asia.