Fears over freedom of navigation are overblown

Fears over freedom of navigation are overblown

WHENEVER observers discuss security in Asia, the talk soon focuses on threats to seaborne trade.

The regional leaders who met at the East Asia Summit in Brunei last week were no exception. Many of them referred to threats to freedom of navigation as the key reason why disputes in the South China Sea need urgent attention.

Likewise growing concerns about the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean as strategic hot spots invariably focus on the risks to the security of the vast seaborne trade that passes across and through these waterways. For Singapore, at the fulcrum of these vital trade routes, the possibility that its security might be threatened would naturally be among the country's most serious strategic concerns.

But how serious are these concerns really? I think they are vastly exaggerated and that such issues distract us from much more real and serious concerns.

Seaborne trade is, of course, vital to the global economy.

Trade has grown remarkably in volume and value over recent decades. Indeed it has grown much faster than global output because an ever-increasing proportion of goods is now traded internationally, often in complex global supply chains. And the vast majority of this trade is carried by sea.

Piracy a mere irritant

IT IS also true that the security of seaborne trade is under threat, especially from piracy. But piracy remains a minor and manageable problem - an irritant rather than a serious danger to the free movement of goods by sea.

Pirates remain inherently much weaker than the states whose interests are so closely bound with secure trade. That means pirates can flourish only as long as their depredations are less costly than the measures it would take to suppress them. If pirates ever seriously threatened a major trade route, they would be squashed.

Serious threats to seaborne trade can be posed only by powerful states, or individuals acting on their behalf.

And so the key question becomes: how likely is a major power to mount that kind of threat? How likely is it, for example, that China would choose to seriously threaten seaborne trade in the South China Sea if it succeeded in establishing its ambitious territorial claims there?

The answer is very clear.

Much of the trade that passes through the South China Sea is going to or from China. All the rest is going to or from other countries whose economies are important to China. This is because in today's highly integrated Asian economic system, China's economy is deeply enmeshed with all the others.

The same is true of other countries. For example, some analysts suggest that America could put pressure on Beijing at any time by threatening China's vital energy supply lines across the Indian Ocean. That would have a devastating effect on China's economy. But it would be disastrous for America's economy too and for that of the rest of the world.

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