Conflict and Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

A review of Bernard D. Cole’s ‘Asian Maritime Strategies’

Few regions around the world today seem as ready to descend into armed conflict than the Indo-Pacific, an immense body of water with critical sea lines of communication (SLOC), “choke points” and natural resources. More than 40 percent of global naval trade occurs in this area, which is also plagued by piracy, a rising China, bitter territorial disputes, and unsettled historical grievances.

In a new book, Bernard D. Cole, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., walks us through this gigantic region, which extends from the Sea of Okhotsk in the northeast all the way to the Red Sea, an area that accounts for nearly half the earth’s surface.

While a number of books published to date have tended to narrow their focus on the Asia Pacific, Cole’s decision to enlarge the geographical setting helps us reach a fuller understanding of the many challenges facing regional powers great and small. By exploring the entire Indo-Pacific, which as the name indicates includes the Indian Ocean, the author drives home the fact that maritime security in the Asia Pacific cannot be detached from developments in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, the principal source of crude for Asia’s booming economies. After all, the Indian Ocean contains the busiest SLOCs on the face of the planet: Two-thirds of global oil shipments pass through it, as do one-third of bulk cargo traffic and half of global container shipments. Understanding the organic nature of energy flows from the Middle East all the way to Northeast Asia not only highlights the immense security and cooperation challenges for the entire region, it also makes us more aware of the drivers for the naval modernization that is occurring across Asia. The need to secure one’s SLOCs and to ensure free passage in the “commons” is as powerful an incentive for developing a powerful (and perhaps “blue water”) navy as are more conventional considerations, such as defense of the homeland. The nature of the challenge becomes clearer when we realize that about 5,000 nautical miles separate the Persian Gulf from Taiwan.


Bernard D. Cole’s ‘Asian Maritime Strategies’

Cole’s overview of the maritime strategies and naval resources of each country within the region is succinct and helpful, though he admits that most of the guiding documents and white papers made public by those countries tend to reflect appeals for public support and justification rather than actual guidelines. “Few Asian nations have coherent maritime strategies or ocean policies that reflect both truly vital national interests and defense-budget realities,” he writes, suggesting that maritime policy in Asia is very much a work in progress. Under certain circumstances, this lack of clarity and “ad hoc” measures could presumably lead to mistakes and escalation.

The strongest sections of the book are those where Cole addresses the many issues related to Asian countries’ various, and sometimes conflicting, interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is at the heart of seemingly intractable territorial disputes between China, Japan, and several countries in the South China Sea (SCS). He concludes: “The UNCLOS certainly is a commendable multilateral effort, but in one sense it has been disruptive of the previously existing maritime legal paradigm, because it completely redefined maritime zones and degrees of sovereignty,” he writes. Differing views on Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) are among the greatest challenges to the effectiveness of UNCLOS — which the U.S. has yet to ratify — as a mechanism for conflict management and resolution. Though it is not the only offender, Beijing’s qualifying statements upon ratifying UNCLOS are highly problematic. Its claim to “sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over its 200 nm EEZ, and requirement that foreign warships obtain prior permission before entering its territorial waters, are inconsistent with the rules stipulated in the UNCLOS. The ramifications for the many territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are hard to ignore, and it is difficult to imagine that calls for cooperation alone will suffice in resolving the crises, especially given the rigidity of the claimants.

Probably because of inattention, Cole more than once argues that Taiwan “agrees” with Beijing’s claims in the SCS, which risks giving the impression to those who do not know better that Taipei is cooperating with China in the disputes. (Although Taipei and Beijing’s claims are very similar, the former has repeatedly denied any intention to work with China and maintains policies that are evidently separate from Beijing’s.)

Cole is pessimistic about the U.S. Navy’s ability to maintain sufficient forces within the region, predominantly because of budgetary constraints and its focus on hugely expensive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVN). However, he makes a good case for the U.S. strategy of reinforcing mutual defense treaties and security ties with regional allies, such as Japan, India, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, though this approach simultaneously reinforces fears of encirclement in Beijing. China also looks at India’s Look East policy, which aims for a greater role in the Asia Pacific for the Indian Navy, with apprehension, fearing that the move could provide an additional counterweight to Chinese power in what it considers its backyard.

The author is relatively upbeat about the territorial disputes between Japan and China in the East China Sea and between China and a handful of nations in the South China Sea. Over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets, he expects that rationalism will prevail over nationalistic sentiment. He assesses that the risks of armed conflict in the South China Sea will remain low “as long as significant energy reserves are not discovered in the central South China Sea.” (Cole argues that Chinese analysts are almost certainly greatly exaggerating energy reserve estimates in the South China Sea, adding that the true value of the disputed area is the key sea lanes between the Middle East and Northeast Asia.)

With regards to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the author is far from convinced that it aims to become a blue water navy capable of challenging, if not displacing, the U.S. Navy globally, though that ambition has certainly been articulated by some Chinese analysts. In his view, Beijing is far more likely to build a navy that is capable of defending Chinese interests within the “three seas,” while developing the means of active defense to keep external forces outside those areas. “The PLAN has become a capable maritime force, and one buttressed by the increasingly numerous and capable coast guard-type organizations deployed by Beijing,” he writes. “But China is far from being a global or even extraregional naval power of significance. In fact, it is not clear that Beijing has made a decision to build such a navy.”

Though he argues that PLAN modernization during the past 25 years has been “relatively moderate,” Cole warns that the exception has been the rapid development of conventionally powered submarines, which he says is directly tied to a Taiwan contingency and remains a top priority for China. In his perhaps too brief discussion of Taiwan (given his admission that the Taiwan Strait remains the likeliest source of conflict between the U.S., China, and perhaps Japan), Cole contends that Taiwan’s navy “is only marginally capable of a meaningful contribution to the island’s defense,” adding that it is “unable to oppose the Chinese navy effectively, not least because its major naval base at Tsoying is small, shallow, and directly opposite [China] less than a hundred nautical miles distant.” Cole faults the government in Taipei for apparently not taking the threat of Chinese military action seriously, and regards a decision to end conscription as clear evidence.

With his latest instalment, Cole has provided a useful and eminently accessible guide to a region that will continue to make headlines for years to come and which could serve as the next setting for violent confrontations at sea.



Navigating Troubled Waters

By Bernard D. Cole

304 pages. Naval Institute Press

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