By Chietigj Bajpaee
Recent years has seen security return to square one in East Asia's maritime domain as state-to-state rivalries supplanted non-state security concerns as the most potent source of instability.
This has come amid the growing interest of regional powers to protect their burgeoning seaborne trade and access offshore energy resources.
Meanwhile, the piracy threat has diminished in East Asia through greater political stability and economic opportunities in traditionally vulnerable maritime states such as Indonesia and a process of improved regional coordination, notably under the aegis of the Malacca Straits Patrol initiative.
Key to the renewed focus on state-to-state security threats is the growing strategic importance of the maritime domain. The South China Sea has emerged as a bridge linking together the Northeast, Southeast and South Asian sub-regions given the growth of intra-regional trade, most of which transits through maritime trade routes.
Over half of the world's annual merchant traffic in tonnage passes through the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits with some 10 million barrels of crude oil transiting the region everyday. As well as being a vital transit route the South China Sea is also a resource in itself with an estimated seven billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet (25 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas.
Complementing the importance of the maritime domain as an economic lifeline to the region, a plethora of maritime territorial disputes scatter the region, which are tied to material goals of protecting freedom of navigation and accessing offshore energy resources, and more ideational objectives related to acquiring "Great Power" status through projecting power, protecting "spheres of influence" and fulfilling national objectives of protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity.
While these material and ideational goals are not new, the growing strategic importance of seaborne trade and dependence on imported energy resources to fuel the economies of region, coupled with the region's expanded military capabilities and growing inter-regional inter-linkages have increased both the likelihood and intensity of any armed conflagration between states.
Some maritime territorial disputes are more localized in nature, such as between North and South Korea over the disputed status of the Northern Limit Line, which culminated in the sinking of a South Korean destroyer, the Cheonan in March 2010, and a missile attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.
Others have wider implications for the freedom of navigation, such as China's claim to the nine-dash line around the South China Sea, which conflicts with Vietnam (and Taiwan's) claim to the Paracel Islands and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei (and Taiwan's) claim to portions of the Spratly Islands.  However, the growing involvement of extra-territorial powers such as the United States, Japan, and India, increases the strategic significance of these disputes for ensuring international peace and security.
State vs non-state actors
The silver lining is drawn from the fact that sovereignty in the maritime domain is more fluid or fungible and as such, there will be more room for maneuver in tackling maritime territorial disputes compared to disputed continental territory, which can be more permanently occupied. However, the players in the maritime domain are also more diverse.
They include coast guards, local police, fishing communities, provincial, state or city-level authorities, and a plethora of government ministries as well as a state's navy. These multiple levels of interaction increase the opportunity for collaboration but also fuel the possibility for misunderstanding given that these groups often pursue conflicting interests. This increases the possibility for an escalation in tensions in the absence of cordial bilateral relations or adequate confidence building or crisis management mechanisms.
For instance, China's State Oceanic Administration, which is under the Ministry of Land and Resources, has jurisdiction over the administration of territorial waters, which it shares with the People's Liberation Army Navy. This has set the stage for sometimes conflicting policy with respect to China's maritime domain, as noted by the frequency with which China Marine Surveillance vessels stray into waters claimed by Japan.
Similarly, the dispute between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets has flared up as local administrative units, namely Shimane Prefecture in Japan, have attempted to strengthen their claims to the disputed territory while South Korea has asserted its claim through educational initiatives and its Coast Guard.
Illustrating the destabilizing role of non-state actors, fishing communities have come to play a prominent role as triggers of regional inter-state tensions in the maritime domain. This is evinced by recent tension between Japan and China over the disputed status of the Daiyutai/Senkaku islands, which was sparked by a rogue Chinese fishing vessel colliding with a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel in September 2010.
Several recent incidents near Reed or Recto Bank, near the island of Palawan between Chinese and Filipino fishing vessels and military craft have also been the catalyst for renewed tensions between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.
Tensions between China and Vietnam have also been fueled by frictions between state and non-state actors, including incidents of Chinese naval vessels damaging seismic cables of oil survey vessels inside Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, as well as the detention of Vietnamese fishing vessels and fishermen by Chinese authorities. Some 155 Vietnamese fishermen were detained by Chinese authorities in the Paracel Islands in 2009, with the number rising to 400 in 2010.
Regional disputes go global
The growing frequency and intensity of rhetoric and incidents by China with respect to maritime territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas signals an attempt by Beijing to challenge the regional status quo while abandoning its mantra of maintaining a low profile and not "rocking the boat" in international relations.
At the same time, other claimants in these disputes have become bolder in challenging China's claims amid the adoption of a more coordinated regional approach and growing engagement with extra-territorial powers. This has come to the chagrin of China that maintains a preference for a bilateral, non-internationalized approach in resolving these disputes.
Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have so far been the most vocal in challenging China's position. For instance, in October 2011 the Philippines and Vietnam signed several bilateral maritime pacts, which included information sharing and a coordinated response to piracy and protecting marine resources. This came months after the naval chiefs of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held their fifth meeting in Vietnam aimed at improving regional maritime coordination and cooperation.
Meanwhile, the United States is taking an increasingly pro-active role by asserting itself as a player in maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as noted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring the peaceful settlement of the dispute a "national interest".
The United States has increasingly taken sides in the dispute by echoing the Philippines' position on its claim, referring to the South China Sea as the West Philippines Sea, conducting war games with the Philippines and Vietnam near the disputed territory in 2011, and reaching an agreement to modernize the Philippine Navy. 
Other extra-territorial powers are also getting in on the act by increasing their maritime engagement with countries that face contested territorial claims with China.
Russia has also been reinvigorating its strategic relationship with Vietnam in the maritime domain, which has included the sale of Kilo-class submarines, upgrading naval facilities in the deep-water port at Cam Ranh Bay and a Russian-Vietnamese joint venture for offshore oil exploration and production off Vung Tau.
These attempts to draw extra-territorial powers into regional maritime territorial disputes in order to increase leverage vis-a-vie China could either serve to tone down China's rhetoric or prompt it to adopt more aggressive posturing. So far the latter appears to be the case.
Reports in July 2011 that an Indian Navy vessel, the INS Airavat received alleged radio contact from the Chinese navy demanding that the vessel depart disputed waters in the South China Sea after completing a port call in Vietnam, illustrates that the growing presence of extra-territorial navies in the region is unlikely to go unchallenged by China.
Beijing has also voiced opposition to Indian company ONGC Videsh exploring for offshore energy resources in disputed waters under a contract with Vietnam. So far extra-territorial powers have merely recognized the de facto sovereignty exercised by rival claimants over disputed maritime territory. A shift toward de jure recognition of sovereignty over disputed territory would signal clear grounds for an escalation of tensions between China, rival claimants and extra-territorial powers in maritime territorial disputes in the region.
Road to cooperation
Despite a plethora of areas of mutual interest in the maritime domain, such as joint exploration of offshore oil and gas resources, joint patrolling of sea-lanes of communication and combating non-state threats such as piracy, regional and global multilateral initiatives are likely remain of limited utility amid the persistence of a regional trust deficit.
This explains why the eight-point guidelines reached at the 18th ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in July 2011 aimed at making the 2002 "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" a binding code of conduct has failed to quell the war of words and sporadic skirmishes in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, global initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and Global Maritime Partnership Scheme ("1,000-ship navy") are only selectively supported amid concerns that they could impinge on state sovereignty. This is illustrated with the example of China's "nine-dotted line" claim in the South China Sea that stretches 1,600 km from its coast, in contravention to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 
Tensions are likely to persist in the absence of sufficient measures aimed at addressing the root causes of regional rivalries, including historical, cultural and power considerations. These need to be complemented by a move away from informal codes of conduct toward institutionalized mechanisms that provide ruled-based binding covenants aimed at enforcing the demilitarization of disputes by all claimants.
Finally, there needs to be recognition by all parties, particularly China, that the era of seeking bilateral local solutions has passed. The strategic significance of these disputes calls for a multilateral solution and more open regionalism that takes account of the views of extra-territorial, non-claimant stakeholders, such as Japan, India and the United States that have an interest in the peaceful resolution these territorial disputes and maintaining the freedom of navigation at sea.
For the foreseeable future inter-state maritime rivalries are unlikely to manifest in the form of armed conflagration between the region's major powers. No major regional power is in a position to exercise unilateral maritime dominance over the Asia-Pacific region while the United States remains the Asia-Pacific region's predominant military power and sea-based balancer.
Rather, as most countries remain focussed on internal growth, development and the consolidation of political power, any rivalry is likely to manifest itself in the realm of rhetoric, economics, military modernization and a competition for allies.
The changing nature of the maritime security domain in Asia comes amid the wider strategic development of renewed US engagement with the Asia-Pacific region as part of its policy of "forward-deployed diplomacy" in the "Indo-Pacific region".
Several recent developments have demonstrated a concerted effort by the United States to challenge the re-emergence of a Sino-centric regional order in Asia. These include the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade agreement with nine Pacific economies in November 2011; the establishment of a permanent US military presence in Australia of a 2,500-strong Marine taskforce by 2016; the US gaining membership to the East Asia Summit during its sixth summit meeting in Bali in November 2011; renewed US commitment to its allies facing maritime territorial disputes with China, namely Japan and the Philippines, and rapprochement with other countries maintaining precarious relations with China, including Vietnam and Myanmar; the Joint Air-Sea Battle Concept unveiled in the US 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, which aims to build an integrated long-range strike capability to overcome China's anti-access capabilities; and the planned deployment of advanced littoral combat ships by the United States to Singapore.
These developments demonstrate the ongoing evolution of the regional security architecture, as the US bilateral "hub and spoke" alliance model is gradually replaced by a multilateral security system in Asia. It also demonstrates the growing complexity of the emerging regional security architecture in Asia given the recognition by regional powers of growing economic interdependence with China despite continued military interdependence with the United States.
Ultimately, regional powers have a shared interest in maintaining open sea lanes given the strategic importance of major waterways as transit points for growing trade and resource imports and the need for a coordinated approach by littoral and extra-regional navies in combating the scourge of non-traditional security threats, including maritime piracy, terrorism and arms, narcotics and people trafficking.
Sustainable cooperation in the maritime domain will require confidence-building that transcends the maritime domain and addresses the root causes behind mutual mistrust. The Malacca Straits Patrols in Southeast Asia played a prominent role in quelling the piracy threat in the South China Sea.
However, this functional cooperation was built upon pre-existing confidence-building mechanisms forged between regional powers by ASEAN. A similar multilateral, inclusive and multi-level model of confidence building needs to be employed to deter the escalation of emerging inter-state rivalries in the maritime domain in the East Asia region.
Notes 1. China, Japan (and Taiwan) are the claimants to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and East China Sea maritime territorial dispute; China, Vietnam (and Taiwan) are the claimants to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea where China has been in control of the islands since 1974; China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei (and Taiwan) are claimants to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea where China controls 6 of the 25 disputed islands.
2. There remains strategic ambiguity over whether the Spratly Islands dispute, as well as the Reed Bank and Amy Douglas Bank, which are not part of the Spratly chain, fall within the ambit of the US-Philippines 1951 mutual defense treaty. This stands in contrast to the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands, which the United States has explicitly stated falls within the ambit of the 1960 US-Japan security treaty.
3. Some elements of the UN Law of the Sea remain contested. For instance, while China agrees on the principle of freedom of navigation in a country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), China argues that this right does not extend to military activities within its EEZ. The United States claims that surveillance activities are permissible.
Chietigj Bajpaee is an associate fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi-based public policy think-tank and a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King's College London.