An American Perspective on Maritime Asia

Editor’s Note: The following speech was delivered at the 2013 East China Sea Peace Forum in Taipei City, Taiwan on August 5, 2013. A portion of the speech is below; the complete speech can be found here.

About eight years ago, I decided to write a book about China-Japan relations. I did not intend at the outset to focus on the maritime dimension of those relations, but that was where I ended up. The result was Perils of Proximity, which Brookings published in 2010. Initially, some of my colleagues were not convinced that this was the most important issue about Japan and China to address. Some colleagues thought that I was moving to rather alarmist conclusions. Fortunately for me, a Chinese fishing boat captain decided to ram a Japan Coast Guard vessel operating near the Diaoyutai one month before Perils of Proximity was released, and people quickly acknowledged that my timing had been near-perfect. As you know, Yuan-Liou Publishing published the Chinese-language version of my book this time last year under the title of Yishan Erhhu.

With that background, I have some modest qualification to make a keynote address at this conference marking the first anniversary of President Ma Ying-jeou’s East China Sea Peace Initiative. And it is a great honor to do so. The Initiative and its associated policies represent an important effort on President Ma’s part to apply a constructive approach to complex interstate disputes, and to put Taiwan on the side of promoting solutions rather than creating problems. To understand why that is true, I will need to explore the complexities of these disputes and the dangers they create. In so doing, I will touch on both the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where the Initiative’s principles are also highly relevant.

Let me summarize my three main points at the outset. First of all, the clash among countries in the maritime domain of East Asia is a manifestation of underlying geopolitical rivalry in the region, a rivalry that usually pits China against other parties in a zero-sum competition. This contest is not the only way in which nations in the region interact with each other. They also seek to deepen economic cooperation for the benefit of all. But rivalry occurs simultaneously, and maritime disputes contribute to it. If maritime disputes are not addressed and mitigated, they will reinforce rivalry, to the detriment of all. Second, these maritime disputes actually encompass disagreements on several interrelated policy questions at the same time, and these disagreements are cumulative in their effect. That means, and this is my third point, that if the parties concerned wish to mitigate disputes and so enhance regional peace and stability, they must reduce or resolve the differences in the right sequence.