Arthur Cyr - Asia's maritime conflicts


President Barack Obama's Asia trip underscores the importance of the region for United States foreign policy, while inevitably drawing attention to serious and growing tensions. The schedule included Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, but not China. Beijing is now embroiled in a range of maritime disputes, among other conflicts.

On April 19, just before Obama's trip, China authorities impounded the Baosteel Emotion, a freighter of Japan's Mitsui O.S.K. Lines. The move is part of commercial claims resulting from World War II.

Beijing is concerned about rising nationalism in Japan, while Tokyo regards China's expanding military capabilities as a threat. The two great Asia powers are also in conflict regarding jurisdiction over the Senkaku Islands. The United States government states the islands are now administered by Japan and fall within the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

Maritime conflicts now pervade Asia. In May 2013, Vietnam charged that a China vessel invading 'exclusive territorial waters' rammed a ship, endangering fifteen Vietnamese fishermen. Two months earlier, Vietnam accused China of shooting at a fishing boat and causing a fire.

That same month, Pres. Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines issued a formal public apology for killing of an unarmed Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters. An initial expression of regret was rejected by Taipei. Both Taipei and Beijing joined in condemning the killing.

In June 2012, a confrontation between Chinese and Philippine fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal threatened to become violent before both sides disengaged. Both nations claim jurisdiction of the South China Sea, including Scarborough, termed Huangyan Island by China.

China steadily expands in international power and influence, including rapid construction of enormous new strategic naval capacities. Traditionally, this nation has been cautious in using military force for aggressive moves, but that may be changing.

The Obama administration has announced that greater strategic priority would be devoted to the Pacific. Actually, since World War II the bulk of the U.S. Navy's ships have been committed to this vast region. American forces have fought major wars in Korea and Vietnam.

In June 2012, a confrontation occurred at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner attempted publicly to hand British Prime Minister David Cameron documents regarding the disputed Falkland Islands. Cameron, with characteristic cool, deflected the grandstanding.

The Falklands, in Argentina referred as the Malvinas Islands, was the site of a brief but extremely bitter war in 1982. The military regime in Buenos Aires seized the islands in a surprise move; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately announced determination to retake them.

A British expedition did recaptured the islands -- a remarkably impressive victory, with vital American logistical support. A March 2013 plebiscite overwhelmingly confirmed the people of the islands prefer British sovereignty.

Great Britain before World War II was the paramount maritime power in the world, and remains important. London is a global insurance and finance center, with firms historically rooted in maritime salvage as well as ocean shipping.

Sea-based commerce has generated deeply rooted and durable international law, and arguably has become even more consequential with modern globalization. This indicates the practical usefulness as well as moral imperative of the rule of law.

Britain and the U.S. have an unusual opportunity to work together, within existing international institutions, to mitigate territorial and trade-related conflicts which increasingly entangle Asia's nations. At a minimum, this dangerous but generally overlooked dimension should be receiving much more public discussion.

(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After the Cold War.)

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