BOOK REVIEW – Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters

Bernard D. Cole, Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. Notes; bibliography.  304 pp.

Review by John M. Jennings
United States Air Force Academy

Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters is the latest book by the prolific naval affairs commentator Bernard D. Cole. Cole’s previous books include Gunboats and Marines: The United States Navy in China, 1925-1928 (1982), The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the 21st Century (2001), Taiwan’s Security: History and Prospects (2006), and Sea Lanes and Pipelines: Energy Security in Asia (2008). As the titles indicate, the focus of Cole’s scholarship has been maritime affairs in Asia, and especially China. In Asian Maritime Strategies, Cole first surveys the naval strategies and current security concerns of each of the maritime nations of Asia, which encompasses both the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. He then concludes by describing some possible scenarios for conflict and cooperation at sea in this volatile but economically vital part of the world: as Cole points out, international maritime trade accounted for 87 percent of the region’s gross domestic product in 2006. (p. 19)

In defining maritime strategy for the purposes of his book, Cole quotes Julian S. Corbett, who described it as “the principles which governs a war in which the sea is a substantial factor.” (p. 19) Cole notes, however, that maritime strategy in the twenty-first century is shaped by a complex variety of factors. As he writes, “a nation’s domestic political priorities and economic demands are major, indeed vital, influences on the development and execution of a maritime strategy.” (p. 19). In Asia, the interplay of economic and political priorities has provoked contention among the maritime nations of the region, most importantly regarding the issue of sovereignty over oil-rich islands of the South China Sea. Cole suggests, however, that it also provides opportunities for cooperation. In particular, the maritime nations have a common interest in maintaining the security of the sea lines of communication.

On one hand, Asian Maritime Strategies has a couple of strengths. The first is its comprehensive geographic scope, which rightly ties together the Indian and Pacific Oceans and includes description all of the maritime nations of the region, both large and small. The book is also thoroughly researched in English-language sources. On the other hand, Asian Maritime Strategies is limited by its almost solely encyclopedic and descriptive nature. For example, much of the chapter on American naval strategy consists of large sections of U.S. Navy strategy and planning documents reproduced more or less verbatim, with little in the way of the author’s commentary or analysis. Especially baffling is the relative lack of attention to the historical context shaping the present-day maritime strategies of the Asian nations. Moreover, the profusion of acronyms, constituting a staggering six-page list, is a frequent inconvenience to the reader. As a result of these limitations, Asian Maritime Strategies is not the definitive work that it could have been, and will likely appeal only to a narrow audience of naval affairs specialists. Readers seeking broader analytical insights into this dimension of Asian international security issues will likely have to look elsewhere.

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