The sea lanes of Indo-Pacific Asia are becoming more crowded, contested and vulnerable to armed strife. Naval and air forces are being strengthened amid a shifting balance of economic and strategic weight. The changing deterrence and warfighting strategies of China, the United States and Japan involve expanded maritime patrolling and intrusive surveillance, bringing an uncertain mix of stabilizing and destabilizing effects. Nationalism and resource needs, meanwhile, are reinforcing the value of territorial claims in the East and South China seas, making maritime sovereignty disputes harder to manage. Chinese forces continue to show troubling signs of assertiveness at sea, though there is debate about the origins or extent of such moves.
All of these factors are making Asia a danger zone for incidents at sea: close-range encounters involving vessels and aircraft from competing powers, typically insensitive or contested zones. While the chance that such incidents will lead to major military clashes should not be overstated, the drivers are likely to persist and intensify. For now, the risk of major-power conflict arising from maritime incidents is centered on China’s frictions with the United States, Japan and other nations in East Asia. But maritime tensions could reach across the wider Indo- Pacific region, as the power and interests of China and India expand. The region is ill-prepared to cope to with the perils arising from incidents at sea. Asia’s infrastructure of maritime confidence-building measures (CBMs) – such as military dialogues, real-time communication channels and formalized ‘rules of the road’ – is generally flimsy and little used.