pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

Strengthening Maritime Crisis Prevention in Northeast Asia: A Focus on Subnational and Nonstate Actors

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 2, pp. 4-11

Volume Overview

“Strengthening Maritime Crisis Prevention in Northeast Asia: A Focus on Subnational and Nonstate Actors” is the first chapter of Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 2 — Advancing a Rules-Based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific. Authors of this volume participated in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Expert Working Group’s 2021 workshop that took place, virtually on March 23-24. The working group, composed of esteemed international security scholars and maritime experts from Japan, the United States, and other Indo-Pacific states, was formed to promote effective U.S.-Japan cooperation on maritime security issues in the region through rigorous research on various legal interpretations, national policies, and cooperative frameworks to understand what is driving regional maritime tensions and what can be done to reduce those tensions. The workshop’s goal is to help generate sound, pragmatic and actionable policy solutions for the United States, Japan, and the wider region, and to ensure that the rule of law and the spirit of cooperation prevail in maritime Indo- Pacific.

Chapter Excerpt


While analyses of interstate crises have traditionally focused on crisis management and state-level factors such as signaling and bargaining between rivaling parties, this state-centric approach leaves an important question understudied: how shall we handle interstate crises with subnational and nonstate actors involved? This question is crucial to managing contemporary interstate relations in Northeast Asia for two reasons. First, subnational and nonstate actors have played a major role in triggering crises related to maritime territorial and boundary disputes in this region. Second and relatedly, the issue of how to prevent maritime crises from occurring in the first place remains inadequately addressed.

By surveying six major maritime crises arising from the Japan-China dispute over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the Japan-Republic of Korea (ROK) dispute over the ownership of Takeshima/Dokdo, this article argues that crisis prevention should be prioritized because maritime disputes in Northeast Asia are often intertwined with other thorny issues such as wartime history, nationalism, and domestic politics, making prompt deescalation difficult to pursue once a crisis occurs. This study recommends a two-level crisis prevention mechanism comprised of interstate and intrastate measures to prevent and deter crisis-triggering actions by subnational and nonstate actors.

Crisis prevention with a focus on substate and nonstate actors

Subnational actors entail various levels of local governments. These actors usually enjoy some autonomy in adopting policies in their regions and are held accountable to local interests to some degree. In addition to local governments, this study also includes local commanders in a state’s maritime security apparatus, whose “excessive zeal or incompetence” may bear responsibility for triggering incidents at sea, as substate actors. Crisis-triggering actions taken by subnational actors include but are not limited to adopting local legislation and administrative measures governing disputed areas; conducting locally backed surveys, patrols, and construction in disputed areas; and initiating domestic civilian proceedings to lease, purchase or develop contested territory.

Nonstate actors entail nongovernmental advocacy groups, research institutions, private businesses, and individual citizens. Crisis-triggering actions taken by nonstate actors may include, but are not limited to, confronting actors of a rivaling party in the contested areas, sailing to and constructing in the disputed areas, and initiating domestic civilian proceedings.

The maritime security environment in Northeast Asia has been crisis-prone over the past two decades as a variety of subnational, nonstate, and state actors have all become increasingly involved in maritime disputes. Not all actors receive the same level of state endorsement. State-level actors such as navies and coast guards are often brought to the contested maritime space by state authorities to assert claims, while activists may be permitted by state authorities on a selective basis to come to the forefront of the disputes to demonstrate popular support or pressure for a firm posture. Still others, for example, local governments, may take autonomous actions, sometimes even against the will of state authorities. While the process of crisis management remains highly centralized to preserve diplomatic latitude and curtail the unwanted influence of “noises,” subnational and nonstate actors can play and have played a significant role in triggering crises.

In the event of a maritime crisis, two powerful dynamics are often at play, making a quick deescalation politically difficult for decisionmakers. The first dynamic is akin to what Thomas Schelling calls “interdependence of commitments,” meaning that when there are multiple contentious issues between the rivaling states, either or both parties may be tempted to act tough on one issue to signal resolve on others.China and South Korea view the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and Takeshima/Dokdo disputes, respectively, as part of Japan’s imperial legacy. These disputes are therefore closely intertwined with emotionally charged historical controversies that trouble Japan’s regional relations. In the event of a maritime crisis, decisionmakers may be locked into a rigid position that precludes the compartmentalization of the crisis from other bilateral issues.

The second dynamic is cross-case reinforcement where states often watch not only what their adversary does but also what the adversary’s adversary does. This dynamic is quite noticeable in Northeast Asia’s maritime disputes. Both in 2005 and 2012, hardliners in China applauded South Korea’s forceful reactions to the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute and pressed for a firmer Chinese posture in its handling of disputes with Japan.

A major implication of these two crisis dynamics is that even seemingly minor frictions can be highly combustible. The risk of incidents at sea and unpredictable escalation is further heightened as claimants now adopt an increasingly permissive approach toward the use of lethal force when dealing with each other in contested areas. All these circumstances underscore the imperative need to prioritize crisis prevention.

Download the Full Volume

Shuxian Luo is an incoming post-doctoral research fellow in foreign policy at Brookings Institution. Her research examines China’s crisis behavior and decision-making processes, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, U.S. relations with Asia, and Asia-Arctic policy. Dr. Luo received her Ph.D. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She holds an M.A. in China Studies and International Economics from SAIS, an M.A. in Political Science from Columbia University, and a B.A. in English from Peking University.

The Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Expert Working Group’s 2021 workshop and this volume were funded by a grant from the U.S. Embassy Tokyo, and implemented in collaboration with the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS).

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email [email protected].

Photo: Tourists visiting Dokdo/Takeshima in 2009. Public domain.