The sea lanes of Indo-Pacific Asia are becoming more crowded, contested and
vulnerable to armed strife. The changing deterrence and
warfighting strategies of China, the United States and Japan involve expanded
maritime patrolling and intrusive surveillance, bringing an uncertain mix of
stabilising and destabilising effects.
Nationalism and resource needs, meanwhile, are reinforcing the value of territorial
claims in the East and South China seas, making maritime sovereignty disputes
harder to manage. Chinese forces continue to show troubling signs of assertiveness
at sea, though there is debate about the origins or extent of such moves. All of these factors are making Asia a danger zone for incidents at sea.
While the chance that such incidents will lead to major military clashes should not be
overstated, the drivers – in particular China’s frictions with the United States, Japan
and India – are likely to persist and intensify. As the number and tempo of incidents
increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation,
diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict.
This report, part of the Lowy Institute’s MacArthur Foundation Asia Security
Project, explores the major-power maritime security dynamics surrounding China’s
rise. It focuses on the risks and the management of incidents at sea involving Chinese
interactions with the United States, Japan and India. The report concludes with some realistic recommendations to reduce risks of crisis
and escalation under conditions of continued mistrust.