The Asian Century in an April Week

April 29, 2014

With Russian-sponsored turmoil flaring in Eastern Ukraine, it seems unrealistic to ask you to keep both eyes on Asia. But given the importance of events unfolding there in the past week, you should at least lend it your good one. President Obama visited three U.S. treaty allies – Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines – along with Malaysia, to demonstrate support for regional partners and put some wind in the diplomatic sails of his ‘Rebalance to Asia.’ Along the way he delivered security guarantees to Japan and the Philippines, including an Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation with the latter.

But the President’s trip was not the only activity afoot in the region. In Qingdao, China, the top brass of more than 20 navies met at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium. Meanwhile in Thailand, ASEAN member nations and China concluded the 7th ASEAN-China Senior Officials Meeting on the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). And in the lead-up to the trip, Japanese and American negotiators were feverishly working to overcome barriers to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Call it the Asian Century in an April week, but the question remains: what kind of century it will be?

If the first few days were any indication, it will be much like the last one. On Saturday, China moved to enforce World War II-era claims against Japan by seizing a cargo vessel, while Japan said it would fortify an island near the disputed Senkakus/Diaoyus. Monday brought Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead including fourteen class-A war criminals, fanning the flames of Chinese and the Korean ire. Meanwhile, reports Tuesday of increased activity at North Korean nuclear test site raised fears of another detonation. Heirs to the events of the 20th century, headlines such as these would fit right in to that century’s publications.

Yet there’s hope that this week signals a different sort of century, too. At the naval symposium, representatives have already signed a framework accord to promote naval communication and increase safety at sea during unexpected encounters and close-quarter maneuvers. While the fact that the ASEAN-China meeting was the 7th such summit gives a sense of the timeframe required to make progress, all parties agreed to initiate joint search and rescue and disaster relief exercises and to set up a communication hotline. Lastly, Malaysia has for the first time voiced public support for international arbitration based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to resolve maritime disputes in the region.

Make no mistake; there are abundant hurdles to ensuring that Asia develops along rules-bound, prosperous, and peaceful lines. While a code of conduct, the naval symposium agreement is not the elusive Code of Conduct, which ideally would place far more restrictions on activities like resource extraction in disputed waters, but it is a step in the right direction. The TPP is mired by parochial interests on both sides of the Pacific, but there may now be enough momentum to finalize the terms within a year even without a breakthrough on the President’s trip. And although China has rejected participating in the Philippines’ South China Seas arbitration case at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas, it might yet come to recognize the benefits and its own self-interest in abiding by international norms – especially given the alternative of an adverse ruling and international opprobrium. Even China’s proceedings against the Japanese shipping company, while bearing the hallmarks of a case of politicized selective enforcement, indicate at least a preference for lawfare over warfare.

As a former naval officer and now reservist, I’d rather that courts try to settle disputes than warships.


Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, the founder and vice president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. The views expressed above were made in the author’s personal capacity and may not reflect the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. Follow on Twitter @SCheneyPeters.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English