The risk of armed conflict escalating from relatively minor events to direct naval confrontation has increased in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) since 2009. Asian littoral states with long-standing sovereignty and territorial disputes now seem less amenable to bilateral negotiations or collective agreements, particular since recent US declaration of national interest in enforcing the freedom of navigation in South China Sea. With the recent UN Arbitral Tribunal award in favour of the Philippines’ claims against China, maritime Asia will see escalating militarisation leading to a “normal state” of heightened geopolitical tension stemming from superpower competition.
Our research programme poses a set of empirical questions aimed to critically examine the mainstream realist understanding of regional politics and power transition. Specified below, these questions look back in history to explore alternative logics of maritime order. Leading with historical analysis, we argue that realpolitik in Asian seas is mediated by ocean governance structures – conceptualized by James Rosenau as a framework of regulation and interdependent relations in the absence of overarching political authority in the international system – that limited power projections and shaped public and private interests in conflict or cooperation. Geopolitically and in the national consciousness of Asian powers, the maritime domain embodies unique vulnerabilities and risks for state and non-state actors that require different solutions than those prescribed by the rules of stable spatial control over land.
Hence our central investigation can be stated as: What ocean governance structure in the Pacific Asia would likely emerge from a fundamental regional power shift of China’s rise? How would it address the common interests in liberal commerce, sustainable development, and the security dilemma of nation-states? Is there any room for political autonomy and foreign policy entrepreneurship for secondary powers caught between the great power politics of US and China?
Drawing on leading maritime scholars in Cambridge and CRP’a Asian, American and European networks of maritime history, law, and security experts, we explore arguments that Europe’s past could inform China’s future as a transitioning land power, facing US as an established naval hegemon and guarantor of regional security pacts. Comparative historical and international relations analyses examine origins of maritime governance, tracing formative processes such as the convergence of stable notions of national sovereignty over ocean spaces, roots of state-building that shapes military and regulatory capacities, and learning and contention of the law of the sea.