Academics, political analysts and Asia-watchers disagree markedly over how things will play out in Northeast Asia over the next 10 to 20 years. Disagree as they may on the details, though, few if any would argue that the evolution of regional security in this part of the world is bound to have significant repercussions across the globe.
One key reason is tied to the growing impact of East Asia on the global movement of goods at sea—maritime trade and energy shipping are two crucial pillars in the foundations of the economic systems in Asia. The massive highways that shift the consumer goods that are built, assembled, and sold around Asia—and to the rest of the world—are made of saltwater, while the vehicles are large container ships.
It’s similar with energy transportation. Today, the economies of key regional actors like Japan, South Korea and, increasingly, China, depend heavily on oil imported from the Middle East and shipped through sea routes crossing the Indian Ocean, the South and East China Seas, and the Sea of Japan. Without these nautical arteries, the economic heart of East Asia would stop beating.
As a result of all this, it’s no wonder that East Asian giants are becoming increasingly concerned with developing strategies and the capabilities to protect their significant interests at sea. But the problem of how to do this is complicated by the controversial process of ‘territorialisation’ of the maritime spaces, including these sea lanes, as they cross the South and East China Seas.
Based on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, littoral states from China to the ASEAN countries to Japan are gathering evidence to claim ownership over portions of the maritime realm to gain rights to exploit its resources. Almost all of the areas in dispute contain (or are believed to contain) large reserves of natural resources, as well as rich fishing grounds.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough, some of the claims also have an important symbolic value, with perceived historical significance making actors involved less inclined to negotiate. China’s claims in the South and East China Seas are just one example.
The multi-layered importance of the maritime realm to the various East Asian actors makes it difficult to be upbeat about developments in regional security. So, does this mean the quest for greater maritime access and control are bound to set countries in the region on a collision course? Not necessarily.
One of the core assumptions with this pessimistic argument is that East Asian economies will grow even more dependent on access to maritime space to sustain their economic development. And, since the main sea arteries pumping goods and energy in and out of the region pass through the Indian Ocean and the South and East China Seas towards the western Pacific, it’s argued that competition over these areas will correspondingly increase.
But what if trade and transport were to pass through alternative routes? What if, for example, the North Sea Route through the Arctic was to open up? In centuries past, explorers sought to prove that this was possible, and one after another they failed. Today, however, with the ice melting as a consequence of global warming, it’s becoming a real possibility.
In fact, the Arctic is already at the centre of renewed attention. So far this year, Russia’s Atomflot, one of the country’s main companies operating icebreakers and ice-class vessels for arctic operations, says it has received three times the number of requests of assistance compared with what it did for the same period last year.
Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago, Britain hosted the first Nordic Baltic Summit to discuss what some have dubbed a ‘mini-NATO’ of the Arctic Ocean to defend common interests and monitor Russian activities in the area. Russia, for its part, is said to be planning for the future deployment of amphibious ships from its Mistral-class to the Pacific to defend the South Kuril Islands. If true, this would also benefit any Russian attempt to increase access to, and control of, the Pacific end of the Arctic region.
It’s not only Russia that’s worth keeping an eye on. China’s current economic investments in North Korea’s northeast, along with the strengthening of basic infrastructure along the corridor connecting the city of Hunchun and the surrounding area of the North Korean Port of Rajon, would effectively allow China maritime access to the North Sea Route. Indeed, unconfirmed reports of Chinese troops being moved to Rajon to protect critical national assets suggest the importance of this access point beyond the already well-known sea lanes of the East and South China Seas.
The opening of an effective shipping route across the Arctic would certainly not be cost free. Increased traffic would likely bring to the fore issues including border disputes, resource exploitation, and navigational risks.
But with reduced traffic transiting today’s busy shipping lane, what will the effect be on regions now regarded as central to Asian security? Would the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea remain at the centre of security debates? It’s difficult to say. One thing, though, is sure—the Arctic has the potential to be a game changer that few people at present are expecting.