Most think of maritime Asia in the context of the Western Pacific littoral, the long swath of near shore waters that run from the Russian Pacific coast to Southeast Asia. Or, that maritime Asia is defined by the competing claims in the East and South China Seas and the rise of the Chinese Navy. Maritime Asia is far more than that. It matters now and it will matter more so in the future, but to think strategically about Asia we must first define maritime Asia.

Perhaps it is our 13 years of war in the Middle East that limits our strategic and maritime thinking about Asia or draws us too quickly to specific security issues. To understand and enable a longer view toward Asia we must step back, open the aperture and look more broadly at the geography and growth of Asia. The foundation of maritime Asia is about commerce and the dependence of Asian nations on the sea. It is about sea routes and resources (energy, mineral and protein – fish) that feed Asian economies. In the terms of the great naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, it is about the “great highways” and “wide common” of the sea. Accordingly, maritime Asia should be thought of, collectively, as the Pacific and Indian Oceans; or, appropriately, the Indo-Pacific maritime. Soon, the ice-diminished Arctic Ocean will increase in importance as the “great highways” and the “wide common” there become more accessible adding to the web of sea-lanes that feed Asia.

In Asia, the strategic importance of the sea is well understood and the maritime competition there has begun. Indeed, Mahan’ strategic view is more likely to be referenced in Beijing than in Washington. That is ironic, as the United States, a Pacific nation, has been the strategic stabilizer in the region for decades assuring freedom of the seas and providing the security and predictability that underpinned the explosive growth of Asia. But as economies rise, especially those dependent on trade, so too do navies. Obviously, China looms large as it relies, as do other Asian countries, on Middle East oil. Mineral resources from Africa and Australia are also vital to continued growth. Those resources move on sea-lanes that traverse the Indian Ocean, heightening attention from India. But more than the use of sea lanes, it is China’s more strategic initiatives, access to ports, more frequent naval deployments and port visits in the Arabian Gulf, Pakistan, Africa and Sri Lanka and an articulated objective of a “Maritime Silk Road” that unsettles some in the region. Beyond these activities, the proliferation of submarines throughout Asia, to include Chinese and Indian ballistic missile submarines, and Chinese and Indian aircraft carriers will add to the complexity of the maritime environment. Japan, which already possesses a highly capable navy, will respond to China’s growing maritime capacity. Russia will seek to remain a consequential naval power in the Pacific and assure its Artic sea-lane, the Northern Sea Route.

As America looks to the future, we must define maritime Asia more broadly, recognize the strategic competition over the “great highways” and the “wide common” of Asia is well underway, and realize that strategic competition matters greatly to the United States as a future Pacific and global power.

About Gary Roughead

Admiral Roughead is an Annenberg Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Prior to retiring from the U.S. Navy he was the U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations and a member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.