Asia’s Maritime Disputes 101
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Asia’s Maritime Disputes 101


Here at The Diplomat we strive to ensure that our readers understand the Asia-Pacific. As such, we give considerable attention to Asia’s increasingly tense maritime disputes, which threaten to upend the peace and prosperity of recent decades. This entails covering the day-to-day developments, whether they are diplomatic initiatives between China and ASEAN over the South China Sea, or the latest Chinese air and naval patrols near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.   

One danger in tracking daily movements so closely is losing sight of the bigger picture. For instance, while Chinese drone and naval patrols in the East China Sea are no doubt important, they shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the larger political forces at work. We are conscious of this danger, and thus try to complement articles on the latest developments with more analytical ones that seek to place these events in their larger contexts.

Still, the balancing act is not always easy, and we are always grateful when friends of The Diplomat publish resources that provide broader overviews of Asia’s maritime disputes. While there have been a number of these in recent years, many of them quite good, no organization has taken such an innovative and refreshing approach to the subject matter as the Council on Foreign Relations, which recently published an interactive guide to China’s maritime disputes that is not to be missed.

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In modern America, think tanks tend to be a dime a dozen. CFR, besides being one of the country’s most venerable, continues to distinguish itself from the crowd. This is true in any number of ways: It boasts no less than 15 primer blogs on its websites covering the whole gamut of foreign policy topics, while its flagship journal, Foreign Affairs, has set the terms of debate on world politics long before most of us were born. When distinguished global leaders from Barack Obama to Shinzo Abe to Hassan Rouhani want to introduce themselves and their foreign policy ideas to the world, they have turned to CFR to do so. And why shouldn’t they, it’s tradition.

Perhaps because CFR and Foreign Affairs played such a crucial role in cultivating my own initial interest in foreign policy, I’ve always greatly admired the organization’s commitment to education and preparing the next generation of global leaders. CFR has a number of educational initiatives and opportunities, one of the more recent of which— and certainly the most tech-savvy—has been its award-winning interactive crisis guides, which have covered the most important issues of our time by combining absolutely stunning aesthetics with the expert insight CFR is known for. Little wonder then that they’ve won CFR no less than three Emmys already (I mean come on, how many foreign policy think tanks have an Emmy?).

The newest guide on China’s maritime disputes more than holds its own with its Emmy-winning predecessors. When first seeing the guide, one cannot help but be taken aback by the artistic presentation of the thing. It is truly exceptional.

But aesthetics shouldn’t obscure how valuable an intellectual resource the guide is. The guide is chock full of useful information (and links to even more). Readers really should take some time explore it themselves, but here are some of the things that really struck me.

First, it recognizes the centrality of history to the disputes. Unlike much of the commentary on the maritime disputes, which tend to focus only on the post-WWII era, the CFR guide begins in the late 19th century just as Japan was eclipsing China. Some relevant events predate this, of course, but it seems as good a starting place as any for a broad overview of the issue. More important than its starting point, however, is that history remains central to the guide throughout. The timeline is especially interesting.

Second, the guide rightly focuses on geography. Americans tend to devalue geography, particularly when compared with ideas. The vastness of the Pacific Ocean, as well as Asian landmasses themselves, may gradually change this. But for obvious reasons, geography is central to the maritime disputes. Even if one appreciates this fact, the sheer messiness of the overlapping claims of sovereignty makes untangling the geography a herculean challenge. CFR’s interactive map (see below) is an invaluable resource in this regard (particularly when viewed in it's larger format on CFR's website).

Thirdly, the guide incorporates foreign resources and viewpoints. Americans and American think tanks, perhaps more than most people, tend to see foreign policy issues from their own viewpoint. CFR’s interactive guide certainly explains the United States’ role in Asia’s maritime disputes, and underscores its importance to U.S. national interests. Still, it doesn’t do so at the expense of neglecting the views of the actual claimants to the disputes. Quotes by central regional players like Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe and Benigno Aquino adorn the guide. Further speeches by regional leaders are included in the videos. Links throughout the guide bring readers to both primary documents and articles by Asian scholars.

The crucial overview video (see below) at the beginning, along with including commentary by CFR experts like Elizabeth Economy, Sheila Smith and Richard Haass, CFR’s president, also features Fudan University’s Shen Dingli, one of China’s leading foreign policy experts. Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, is featured in a different video.

The necessity of including non-American voices is underscored in the overview video when Shen outlines how China views the East China Sea dispute differently from the South China Sea one.

“For the East China Sea, it is more political” Shen explains. “China considers we have been invaded by Japan, and Japan has stolen our island. But for South China Sea, it’s largely about economics.”

This is invaluable insight and says much about the differences in China’s policies toward these two disputes. Unfortunately, it also explains why the East China Sea is currently the biggest flashpoint in Asia.

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