Current maritime conflicts echo earlier wars, launched over history to control global commerce and territory, while underscoring the durable importance of traditional trade routes.
Argentina, Britain, Brunei, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and other nations are involved in recent disputes. Less directly, the United States is also engaged.
Vietnam charges that on May 20 a China vessel invaded “exclusive territorial waters” and rammed a ship, endangering 15 Vietnamese fishermen aboard. Earlier in March, Vietnam accused China of shooting at a fishing boat and causing a fire.
In mid-May, President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines issued a formal public apology for the killing of an unarmed Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters. An initial expression of regret was summarily rejected by Taipei, which has undertaken retaliation. Both Taipei and Beijing have joined in condemning the killing.
Tensions have been escalating for months. In June 2012, a confrontation between Chinese and Philippine fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal threatened to become violent before both sides disengaged. Both nations claim jurisdiction of the South China Sea, including Scarborough, termed Huangyan Island by China.
Historically, China has controlled these waters, but in the 1990s the Philippines began to claim authority. When Philippine ships began to occupy positions near Scarborough, the conflict grew into a continuing crisis, fitful but dangerous.
China steadily expands in international power and influence, including rapid construction of enormous new strategic naval capacities. Traditionally, this nation has been cautious in using military force for aggressive moves, but that might be changing.
The Obama administration has announced that greater strategic priority would be devoted to the Pacific. Actually, since World War II the bulk of the U.S. Navy’s ships have been committed to this vast region. American forces have fought major wars in Korea and Vietnam.
In June 2012, a political maritime confrontation occurred at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner attempted publicly to hand British Prime Minister David Cameron documents regarding the disputed Falkland Islands. Cameron with characteristic cool deflected the grandstanding.
The Falklands, in Argentina referred as the Malvinas Islands, was the site of a brief but extremely bitter war in 1982. The military regime in Buenos Aires seized the islands in a surprise move; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately reacted with determination to retake them.
A British expedition recaptured the outpost in a remarkably impressive demonstration of military effectiveness. However, U.S. logistical support was vital.
The British government remained committed to resolving the long running dispute with Argentina by referendum among the approximately 3,000 people living on the Falklands. The two-day vote was held March 10-11. A total of 1517 residents voted, with all but three choosing to remain a territory of Britain.
Before World War II, Great Britain was the paramount maritime power in the world, and it remains important. London is a global insurance industry center, populated by firms rooted initially in maritime salvage as well as shipping operations.
Sea-based commerce has generated deeply rooted and durable international law, and arguably has become even more consequential with modern globalization. This indicates the practical usefulness as well as moral imperative of the rule of law.
Britain and the U.S. have an opportunity to work together, within existing regional and international institutions, to try to mitigate conflicts which increasingly entangle Asia’s nations. At a minimum, this dangerous but generally overlooked dimension should be receiving much more public discussion.