Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Oceanic Revolution and Pacific Asia

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Oceanic Revolution and Pacific Asia

Article excerpt

The ocean forms perhaps the only common denominator of Pacific Asia and it seems a useful port of entry for any exploration of the international history of the region. What follows are merely broad and introductory observations intending to provide a global maritime background for the events that have occurred there in modern times.

In human affairs, the sea plays the role of avenue, arena, and source. It is an avenue for the flow of goods and resources, traditionally for people as well as ideas, and an arena for struggle and combat. Furthermore, the sea provides a source of foodstuffs and minerals, and will offer perhaps much else in the future. Now a frontier of opportunity, it is also a frontier of challenge. How we can exploit these resources without severely damaging the natural environment or inflaming national passions is a daunting task, especially in Pacific Asia where tensions are already high.

Changing uses of the ocean have carried specific consequences to Pacific Asia. Focusing on the early nineteenth century to the present, we can cast these two centuries in terms of "oceanic revolution," a phenomenon that has unfolded in three major episodes, two of which happened during this period and one much earlier. Revolution may now be an overly used term, but in measure of how the ocean is used, it seems apt. Though lacking the drama of political revolution, like the agricultural or the industrial revolutions, oceanic revolution has unfolded in a protracted series of spasmodic change reshaping the world. Thus came the onset of what we recently have been calling globalization.

European initiatives brought about the first burst of oceanic revolution at the turn of the fifteenth century, when intrepid Atlantic navigators discovered the world wind system and used it to open global sea routes for their gunned sailing ships, thus establishing a new stream of global interactions. Eurasia became part of a wider world and its two peripheries- China and the European Atlantic states-developed continuing, if one-sided, direct contacts.

Several European historians have suggested that the principal export of Europe at that time was violence; certainly Europeans were belligerently possessive and culturally overconfident. Their behavior was not unlike that of the Scythians, Huns, or Mongols. But whereas the Asian nomads had commanded from horseback, the Europeans commanded from the quarterdeck. For Eurasia, this image depicts both the reality of European power and its limits until the early nineteenth century.

The result of this first burst of oceanic revolution was that a European sea frontier replaced the nomad-created steppe frontier as a critical meeting point between civilizations. But unlike the nomads, even at their acme, the sea made the maritime Europeans themselves a global force, not simply a Eurasian one. Thus they were true revolutionaries.

A papal bull of 1493 and a treaty shortly thereafter attempted to delineate newly opened oceanic space as spheres of influence or stewardship between the two pioneering Iberian states. But these documents did not declare ownership. Indeed, neither Spain nor Portugal claimed ownership of the watery spaces linking their overseas territories to their respective motherlands, but they assumed the right to control the uses of blue water sea lanes and attempted to exercise that authority.

Other European powers contested these assumptions, following the argument of the Hollander Hugo de Groot (Grotius) that the community of nations shared such guardianship, which included freedom to fish and the right of passage on the seas. The Englishman John Selden advocated the right of nations to claim and enclose their coastal waters. These were, of course, European conceits, imposed on the rest of the world by an unchallenged European command of blue water space.

Thus the Atlantic world began to use its newfound power on the sea to make a global imprint. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.