Asian stability could shift in 2013

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Asian stability could shift in 2013

In 1993, a series of journal articles written by mainstream international relations scholars in the United States claimed that Asia would be “ripe for rivalry” as the next arena of international conflict. These predictions were a response to the question of what would be the main focus of international security studies after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

These scholars, from some of the best universities in the United States, argued that the combination of nationalism, power rivalries, historical animosity, arms racing and energy needs would lead to security competition among the great powers of Asia. All international relations scholars could then earn their living studying Asian conflict rather than U.S.-Soviet conflict.

So, students and scholars of world politics waited. Five years later in 1998 there were tensions, but no major conflicts. Ten years later in 2003, there were again tensions, but all of the actual wars were in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Fifteen years later in 2008, there was still no war. And now almost 20 years later, still nothing.

In fact, all these “ripe for rivalry” predictions were proven wrong. There was no great power war in Asia in the post-cold war era, nor war of any kind. Indeed, the region remained remarkably peaceful and prosperous despite all of the Western forecasts for the contrary.

One of the primary mistakes in these earlier analyses, in my view, was that none of the scholars predicted relative stability on the U.S.-Japan-China axis. To the contrary, all predicted some degree of conflict and tension among Washington, Tokyo and Beijing. Why? Because history said so: There had been at least one war along each of these major power dyads.

The pressing question today is whether Asia may finally be “ripe for rivalry” as these scholars had predicted. A look at the region in 2013 raises concerns about the direction in which we are headed.

Historical and territorial disputes between Japan and China are at an all-time high. Both sides are taking unprecedented steps in moving vessels around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. An altercation that spins out of control is within the realm of plausibility.

Disputes between Japan and South Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima have been significantly strained by Lee Myung-bak’s unprecedented visit to the island in April 2012, and the Japanese Diet’s vociferous and critical criticism of the ROK president.

This historical enmity has made practical security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo impossible, even on the exchange of critical military information in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Furthermore, domestic politics in the region do not bode well for regional relations. The likely return of conservative Shinzo Abe to prime minister of Japan next week would not be so troubling except that he will likely need a coalition to run the government.

A union with current prime minister Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) might have a moderating influence on Abe’s nationalist views on history, but impending competition in the Upper House Diet elections next summer might make it difficult for the LDP and DPJ to work together.

This would leave Abe working with the ultra-right wing political maverick Shintaro Ishihara’s Japan Restoration Party. This constellation of political forces could push Abe to the right and to undertake measures like denying the August 1993 apology by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on comfort women, which would inflame tensions further in Seoul-Tokyo relations.

The basic problem is clear: The status quo on these historical issues among China, Japan and Korea is now shifting in troubling and perhaps irreparable ways.

The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia is a welcome development to offset decades of inordinate attention given to Europe and the Middle East. But the pivot has also increased tension in U.S.-China relations as the new leadership in Beijing sees Obama’s policies as a not-so-disguised effort at containing China’s rise.

Administration officials deny this accusation; Nevertheless, a clear product of the pivot has been increased political competition between the U.S. and China in Southeast Asia.

Already, multilateral institutions like the East Asia Summit, Asean Defense Ministerial Meeting, Asean Regional Forum and APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] have become the playing field for pitched contests between Washington and Beijing diplomats to control the agenda and woo smaller Southeast Asian players to their side.

U.S.-China competition is nothing new - the United States and China have a long and practiced history of dealing with each other in Northeast Asia. Our military prepares for war there with China, just as China’s military prepares for war with the United States. But it is precisely because of this history that conflict between the U.S. and China in East Asia is not likely.

In Southeast Asia, however, because Washington and Beijing do not have a long history of interacting with one another, the potential for the Asia pivot leading to U.S.-China miscalculation in the South China Sea is high.

Lurking amid all of these new dynamics is North Korea. The past week has seen the media obsessed with the stacking of the missile at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station and on whether Pyongyang can be deterred from carrying through on its promise to launch in the Dec. 10-22 time window, now extended to Dec. 29 citing technical problems.

But for me, the secondary and tertiary consequences of the missile are equally troubling. The Unha-3 launch is the clearest and most recent manifestation of a deeply-rooted and decades-long national mission to develop long-range ballistic missile technology and nuclear weapons.

As we draw closer to North Korea’s nuclear breakout as a fully weaponized state, it becomes inevitable that countries in the region threatened by these weapons will seek greater military weaponry on their own or in conjunction with the United States. These reactions, in turn, could spark arms-racing of some type in the region.

Historical animosity, deterioration of relations along the U.S.-Japan-China triangle, and regional arms-racing sparked by North Korean belligerence were all variables that were focused on by these international relations scholars twenty years ago. Their predictions were wrong then. But maybe they will be right in 2013.

* The author is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser for Asia and Korea chair at CSIS in Washington.

by Victor Cha
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