4 May 2017

The Four Most Dangerous Flashpoints in East Asia

Over the past 70 years, East Asia has emerged as a region that once accounted for just 10% of global economic output to one that today accounts for more than 35% of the world’s economic output.  As a result, any unrest or conflict that occurs in East Asia will have global repercussions.  Unfortunately, there are numerous unresolved flashpoints across East Asia, some of which have the potential to spark a major conflict in the region. 

What is particularly concerning is the fact that nearly all of these flashpoints involve the region’s rising giant, China.  Moreover, a number of these flashpoints have the potential to also involve the world’s leading power, the United States, in any conflict there.  As the United States and China contest economic and military supremacy in this region and around the world in the coming years and decades, some of these flashpoints could prove to be the spark that ignites the next world war.  At present, some of the flashpoints are very hot, while others are cold. 

Here are four flashpoints that could result in a major conflict in East Asia at some point in the future.

North Korea: Today, no flashpoint in East Asia, and perhaps the world, is more dangerous than the one found on the Korean Peninsula.  This is due to the fact that North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, has proven himself to be an aggressive risk-taker who has so far refused to bow to international pressure.  Even after North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear tests attracted international condemnation (even from China), North Korea has shown little sign of scaling back its missile and nuclear programs.  Its missile program is clearly designed to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons to the United States and other distant targets, while its other military programs are designed to win a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula. 

For China, North Korea’s recent actions have been quite upsetting, as Beijing wants stability on the Korean Peninsula and does want a North Korean collapse, or military defeat, that will result in millions of North Koreans flowing into China, or a US military presence on the banks of the Yalu River.  Meanwhile, to the surprise of many, United States President Donald Trump has taken a keen interest in North Korea, and has even offered to meet with Kim Jong-un.  What is certain is that these are dangerous times on the Korean Peninsula, and they involve major powers such as the US, China and Japan.

South China Sea: Another flashpoint in East Asia that poses an immediate threat to the region’s stability is the South China Sea.  This is due largely to the fact that China is seeking to enforce its claim to more than 90% of the waters of this strategic body of water.  In recent years, China has stepped up its efforts to build up tiny islands and reefs across the South China Sea, while constructing a series of military bases at key locations across the sea. 

Meanwhile, a number of countries (including Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines) are opposing China’s claims there and have their own claims to parts of the sea.  There have already been clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea in recent years, clashes that have severely damaged bilateral relations between those two neighbors.  At the same time, the United States Navy has had a long and extensive presence in the South China Sea and, as China has moved to enforce its claims in the sea, the US has called on China to guarantee the freedom of travel along the sea’s vital shipping lanes.  As such, it is this flashpoint where a potential clash between US and Chinese forces is most likely, and it is unlikely that the tensions in this vital body of water will ease in the coming years.

East China Sea: One potentially dangerous flashpoint in East Asia that has quieted in recent years has been the East China Sea.  Here, China and Japan have overlapping maritime claims that have damaged relations between the countries with the world’s second- and third-largest economies.  The main dispute between China and Japan is over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that are located between Taiwan and Okinawa, with tensions rising after gas reserves were found in the waters around these Japanese-occupied islands. 

In fact, it is here that there is a greater chance of a clash between China and Japan than anywhere else.  Moreover, as China grows more assertive and as Japan restores some of its lost military capabilities, the threat of a conflict over the East China Sea is likely to rise.  Moreover, such as clash would almost certainly draw in the United States (and possibly Taiwan), making this one of the world’s most important flashpoints in the 21st century.  Unless relations improve between China and Japan, tensions in the East China Sea appear certain to rise again in the future.

Taiwan: The dispute over the status of Taiwan may have been relatively quiet in recent years, but this flashpoint is potentially the greatest threat to longer-term stability in East Asia.  While China continues to insist that Taiwan remains an integral part of its territory, there is widespread support for official independence from China within segments of the Taiwanese population.  For China, the return of Taiwan to its control is both a point of national pride and an attempt to improve China’s strategic position in the Pacific region. 

Not only would Taiwan’s return restore China’s control over nearly all of what it considers its historic territory, but it would also dramatically improve the access of Chinese shipping, and the Chinese navy, to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.  This latter point is very important as China’s current access is restricted by a line of islands stretching from Japan in the north to Indonesia in the south.  Meanwhile, the imbalance between the economic and military power of China and Taiwan continues to widen at a pace that must be disconcerting for the latter.  However, as long as the United States continues to protect Taiwan, it is unlikely that China will move to annex Taiwan by force.  However, China will not give up its claim to Taiwan, and over the longer-term, should Taiwan force the issue of independence, the threat of a full-scale war will rise to very dangerous levels.