From Naha and Pusan in the north to Malacca in the south, a rising tide of instability and tension threatens to engulf Asia. The deteriorating situation in the Middle East has drawn much of America’s attention to that part of the world. But an increasingly dangerous set of confrontations now smolders in Asia, threatening to burst into conflagration.
The various disputes involve major Asian powers: China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and more. At stake is not just regional stability, but a cornerstone of the global economy.
The growing tension in Asia arises from a set of factors different than those that produced the “Arab Spring.” At issue in the Far East are unresolved borders, coupled with longstanding historical animosities. The situation is redolent of that existing in Europe a century ago—when an assassination in Sarajevo sparked an international bonfire.
Unlike Europe, the borders of Asia are not set. Territorial disputes are common—and a classic example of zero-sum problems. They are hard to resolve—but even more so when there’s little agreement on what to call them. Are those disputed islands the Senkakus or the Diaoyutai? Are those islets Dok-do, Takeshima, or Liancourt Rocks?
And when the disputed areas contain prized natural resources—be they fisheries or oil—positions become even more intractable, as nationalism combines with profit and national security.
The situation is further exacerbated by centuries of animosity, fed by a combination of patriotism, nationalism, and prejudice. Tokyo, Beijing, and Taipei have very different views of not only World War II, but much of the overall history of Sino-Japanese relations. Similarly, Japan and Korea recently failed to establish a quite basic information-sharing agreement because of the still simmering hatreds that date back four centuries.
As a result of these factors, at least three major crises are currently boiling, each of which involves U.S. friends and allies.
Diaoyutai/Senkakus. This cluster of uninhabited rocks between Okinawa and Taiwan is claimed by both Beijing and Taipei (who call them the Diaoyutai), both of whom agree that they do not belong to Tokyo, who claims it, too. The longstanding dispute recently gained impetus when Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara (author of “The Japan that Can Say ‘No’”) tried to buy the islands from their private owners. When the Japanese government stepped in to purchase the islands instead (in what was intended to be a calming measure), both China and Taiwan took exception, each dispatching flotillas of fishing boats to protest the Japanese move.
Dokdo/Takeshima. Another burgeoning flash point has been several uninhabited islands between South Korea (which calls them Dok-do) and Japan. The dispute came to the fore soon after a bill proposing that Seoul and Tokyo share basic intelligence information failed in the South Korean legislature. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak subsequently visited the islands, the first time any ROK president had ever done so. The resulting nationalist backlash in Japan—and support in South Korea—have sent ROK-Japan relations plummeting.
South China Sea. At the southern end of the Asian coastline, a range of disputes threaten the sea lanes that supply Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. Some of the disputes are multilateral. For example, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam all claim some or all of the Spratly Islands. Others are bilateral beefs, such as the ongoing China-Philippines tensions over Scarborough Shoal (north of the Spratlys). Both the PRC and Taiwan claim applies not only to the various islands, but, at times, have also been applied to the waters as well. Meanwhile, U.S. research vessels such as the USNS Impeccable and EP-3 intelligence aircraft have been harassed by the Chinese military; the latter was the cause of the 2001 EP-3 incident.
The one bright spot in all this has been that none of these crises has yet been militarized. Thus far, all the claimants have chosen to rely on civilian law enforcement and coast guard vessels to underscore national support. But as tensions rise and passions heighten, there is the possibility that one or another state might choose to escalate—and that, in turn, will directly affect American economic and security interests. Is Washington ready?
Dean Cheng is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.