East and South China Seas Maritime Dispute Resolution and Escalation: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

AuthorAlexander C. Tan,Michael I. Magcamit
Date01 August 2016
DOI10.1177/2347797016645450
Published date01 August 2016
Subject MatterArticles
East and South China Seas
Maritime Dispute Resolution
and Escalation: Two Sides
of the Same Coin?
Michael I. Magcamit1,2
Alexander C. Tan3,4
Abstract
Our assumptions about the nature and conduct of contemporary international
politics deeply impact how we view maritime disputes plaguing the East and South
China Seas. In this article, our analysis of the push and pull factors that influence the
extent and possible resolution of maritime disputes in East Asia reveals that war
is neither opposed in principle nor completely forbidden as an alternative. Amid
heightening maritime tensions in the region, we argue that the underlying forces
sustaining complex interdependence are what prevent rival states from engaging
into a realist-inspired, zero-sum warfare. However, this is not to suggest that eco-
nomic interdependence creates an absolute power that completely eradicates these
flashpoints, and neither do we imply that it faithfully reflects East Asia’s maritime
political reality. Although East Asian countries (particularly the more powerful ones)
may think that open war can be justified, as a matter of practical utility, avoiding it is
likely to be more effective in achieving the goals of a given conflict.
Keywords
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), complex interdependence,
realism, maritime dispute resolution, China
Introduction
Our assumptions about the nature and conduct of contemporary international
politics deeply impact how we view maritime disputes plaguing the East and
Article
1
Faculty of Economics, Musashi University, Tokyo, Japan.
2
Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and Development Studies (ISDS).
3
Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
4
Department of Political Science, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.
Corresponding author:
Alexander C. Tan, Department of Political Science, University of Canterbury, Christchurch 8140,
New Zealand.
E-mail: alex.tan@canterbury.ac.nz
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(2) 113–134
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
sagepub.in/home.nav
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016645450
http://aia.sagepub.com
114 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(2)
South China Seas. Moreover, they also determine how we formulate theories that
can potentially explain how they might be resolved or not. It is our view that the
key assumptions of the political realists provide an insufficient basis for under-
standing the intangible, albeit potent, the power of complex interdependence that
is holding back East Asian states (comprised of Northeast and Southeast Asia)
from engaging in an open conflict. Notwithstanding the perturbing image painted
by realism, complex interdependence offers a different, and sometimes, an even
closer version of a ‘realist reality’. Amid heightening maritime tensions in the
region, we argue that the underlying forces sustaining complex interdependence
are what prevent rival states from engaging into a realist-inspired, zero-sum war-
fare. However, this is not to suggest that economic interdependence creates an
absolute power that completely eradicates these flashpoints, and neither do we
imply that it faithfully reflects East Asia’s maritime political reality. Indeed, the
region’s historical and contemporary disputes are nested in an environment of a
high degree of economic interdependence among the disputants. Such an obser-
vation indicates that complex interdependence theory does not provide a panacea
to increasing maritime problems in the region.
What we argue is that despite their ‘shadow-boxing’, the invaluable threads of
economic, political and strategic interdependencies are compelling the disputing
actors to adopt a relatively pacifist approach to maritime security. While the recent
events in the region have resulted in heightened pursuit for ‘realist necessities’, the
extreme reluctance and consistent refusal of disputing actors to engage in all-out
maritime warfare suggests that ‘pragmatic pacifism’1 remains to be the preferred
strategy for resolving conflicts rather than ‘mindless militarism’. The mutually
assured destruction of interdependent linkages that a warfare solution will bring
about is both counter-intuitive and counterproductive to the motives that drive
these conflicts to begin with. Given the invaluable positive externalities being
generated by complex interdependence, we make the corollary argument that the
solutions to maritime security issues in the East and South China Seas do not
entirely depend on the institutional capacity of regional organizations such as the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC). In contrast, the informal and non-institutionalized capacity
of complex interdependence to prevent the militarization of state actions and
policies from reaching an irreversible track is what renders open war the least
appealing option.
In this article, we examine the ‘push and pull’ factors that determine the extent
of maritime disputes in the region, on the one hand, and the likely instruments for
their resolution, on the other. In particular, we assess the ‘pull factors’ of complex
interdependence against the ‘push factors’ of realism vis-à-vis the East Asian
maritime disputes. One way of answering why disputing states in East Asia do not
resort to a full-blown, offensive military warfare is to assess whether the level of
presumed complex interdependence in the region is significant enough to thwart
the logic of war that might appeal to disputing states.
Keohane and Nye (1977) identify three key characteristics of complex inter-
dependence, namely, presence of multiple channels, the absence of hierarchy
among issues and minor role of military force. Looking at the region surrounded

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