Maritime Regime Building in East Asia: The Past, Present and Its Prospects for the Future

Nov 10, 2015 | 12:00 PM

Koo Min Gyo (Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University; HYI Visiting Scholar)
Chair/Discussant: Beth Simmons (Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs, Department of Government, Harvard University)

Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

East Asia is home to many of the world’s most vexing territorial disputes. Even small, barely habitable offshore islands can serve as the most persistent and explosive bone of contention. Globalization has ushered in an era of ‘borderless world.’ In East Asia, however, coastal states are engaged in an accelerating arms race at sea, giving rise to a ‘New Cold War’ period. The danger of conflict escalation at sea has grown particularly large for the past couple of years. There seems to be no end in sight to the tensions.

During the Cold War and the post-Cold War years, maritime order in East Asia had been maintained by the U.S. hegemony. However, in the transition period, the regional maritime order is growing ever more unstable due to the constantly changing geo-political and geo-economic conditions. At the center of the structural shift lies a rising China that is increasingly becoming a maritime power. What makes the matter even more complicated is America’s recent change of attitude from being passive to showing active intents to re-engage itself in the maritime issue area.

East Asia’s maritime issues have evolved within a number of contexts including politics, economics, and law. They form a multi-layered structure of issues involving territorial sovereignty, delimitation of maritime boundaries, resource development, and protection of the environment. This study explores how the new Sino-U.S. rivalry has affected the existing maritime balance of power in East Asia. Also, it sheds a new light on the significance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a normative foundation of contemporary global maritime regimes, in view of the new regional balance of power. Finally, this study examines the extent to which the UNCLOS, despite the ambiguity of key rules and procedures, can serve as meta-regime on which a new regional maritime order can be built.