CHAPTER 1RIPE FOR RIVALRY: ASIA
When the Cold War ended a quarter of a century ago – and in the emerging global stability the Doomsday Clock moved to seventeen minutes to midnight – several commentators were already anticipating a darker future. Princeton professor of international affairs Aaron Friedberg, for instance, characterised Asia as ‘ripe for rivalry’ and saw the region as destined to become ‘the cockpit of great power conflict’.1
Commentators such as Friedberg saw three sources of instability.
First, the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union made Asia more dangerous because it removed what Australian scholar Desmond Ball called the ‘tempering mechanism’ for keeping regional conflict under control. What Ball meant was that the division of the world into rival ideological camps imposed discipline at the regional level: countries belonging to the communist bloc generally needed to secure the backing of their Soviet patron before picking a fight with a member of the opposing US-led
capitalist camp, and vice versa. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and with real doubts over whether America would remain in the region or bank the substantial savings from no longer having to maintain its massive forward military presence, longstanding Asian antipathies that had been temporarily obscured by the superpower stalemate bubbled to the surface. In these, Ball saw ‘much fertile ground for regional conflict’.2
Second, pessimists saw a deadly downside to Asia’s strong economic growth. New regional players, such as China, Japan and India, were on the rise. History shows that such shifts in economic power tend to produce international instability, as leaders draw upon their nation’s newfound wealth to build military capability. This dynamic becomes more pronounced when multiple powers are rising simultaneously, as they were in Asia. A multipolar system, comprising several major powers, would be more unstable than the predictable bipolar patterns of the Cold War period, where strategic alignments tended to be less fluid.
Third, unlike in Europe, where an elaborate multilateral framework had been developed after World War II, in Asia such institutional arrangements were in short supply. Supporters of liberalism have long maintained that intergovernmental organisations such as the European Union serve to build trust by improving international communication. They increase opportunities for policymakers to interact, the argument goes, and to gain a more intimate appreciation of the other side’s perspective. Such organisations can also potentially be valuable in negotiating and managing
international crises. The absence of such mechanisms in post–Cold War Asia reinforced expectations that unadulterated power politics would prevail.
Conflicts left unresolved from the wash-up of World War II did in fact flare on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait during the mid-1990s. This seemed to confirm fears that Asia was heading towards a turbulent future. Yet as the new century turned, there was suddenly less tension in the air in Asia. Washington became increasingly preoccupied with developments in the Middle East as it waged the War on Terror. Beijing launched a charm offensive, designed to woo neighbours with economic inducements and a softer diplomatic approach. It settled long-standing border disputes, sometimes on less-than- advantageous terms, and established a Free Trade Area with the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Smooth-talking ambassadors took the place of table-thumping cadres in key diplomatic posts. The Japanese economy entered its second decade of stagnation, putting paid to predictions of Tokyo’s rise.3
As the decade wore on, tensions subsided on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait. And by decade’s end, commentators were even talking up the prospect of a US–China Group of Two, or ‘G2’, that would allow the world’s two most powerful nations to work collaboratively.4
These developments fuelled optimism that the region was set for stability. Some of this commentary grafted old ideas onto the new Asia. The well-established argument that trade prevents conflict was
popularly applied. As countries became increasingly intertwined through economic and political alliances, journalists and academics predicted a peaceful region. Leaders, they contended, would be loath to pass up this economic windfall for a costly war.5
Many viewed the emergence of indigenous multilateral groupings – such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting – as adding ballast to already buoyant economic conditions. Some, such as Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, even saw potential to build upon these foundations to construct an ‘Asia-Pacific community’ inspired by the EU.6
Other commentators pointed to Asia’s distinctiveness from Europe, which they saw as beneficial in establishing a peaceful order. The American academic Robert Ross argued that Asia’s stability stemmed from its unique geography. Ross regarded Asia not as a single region but as two separate regions – one continental, one maritime. Asian peace in the twenty-first century was attainable, he argued, due to Chinese dominance of the former and American command of the latter. Because of the physical distance between these two powers, neither threatened the other in quite the same way as more geographically proximate rivals.7
Scandinavian scholars sought even deeper answers to the puzzle of Asia’s peace, pointing to culture as an explanation. The interviews they conducted with scores of Asian policymakers showed that just as personal connections and informal networks – or what the Chinese call guanxi
– are often critical to doing business in this part of the world, so these qualities of informality and intimacy are central to the avoidance
of conflict because of the confidence and trust that personal interactions generate.8
But Asia’s brief period of stability was a calm before the storm. A succession of crises rocked the region from 2010, as tensions heated up simultaneously on the Korean Peninsula and in the East and South China Seas. North and South Korea were taken to the brink of conflict as Pyongyang sank one of Seoul’s navy ships and bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Chinese and Filipino craft faced off at a disputed reef in 2012, as did Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in 2014, after Beijing parked an oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Relations between Beijing and Tokyo also became strained from 2012 after Japan unilaterally ‘nationalised’ the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Against this backdrop, the diagnoses of Asia as set on a course for conflict have resurfaced. Prominent among this commentary is the voice of Harvard professor Graham Allison. He likens Asia’s present to the period before the Peloponnesian War that devastated Ancient Greece, as recounted in Thucydides’ classic history. Allison argues that just as Athens’ rise instilled such fear in Sparta as to make conflict virtually inescapable, so America’s apprehension over China creates a similar predicament today. His analysis of instances over the past 500 years where a rising power has threatened to displace an incumbent show that the protagonists have failed to escape what he termed the Thucydides Trap 75 per cent of the time.9
The British strategic thinker Christopher Coker predicts that such a Sino–American conflict could erupt within the decade.10
journalist Richard McGregor believes instead that an Asian version of the Wars of the Roses – those infamous battles for influence in Tudor England – is looming between China and Japan. But America’s alliance with Tokyo, he contends, could still entangle it in that conflict.11
World leaders have also invoked the Thucydides Trap in relation to Asia. Addressing the sixteenth Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2017, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull observed that ‘the rapid rise of a new power, be it modern China or Ancient Athens, creates anxiety’.12
Chinese president Xi Jinping has championed the idea that Asia needs a ‘new model of great power relations’ in an explicit counter to such Thucydidean thinking.13
The sparks of war: how and why flashpoints matter
The term ‘flashpoint’ comes from the sciences. A flashpoint is the lowest temperature at which vapours from a liquid will ignite when exposed to a flame. The lower the flashpoint, the more volatile the liquid. Applied to international affairs, flashpoints are geographic areas with the potential to erupt suddenly into violent conflict. Timothy Hoyt, a professor at the US Naval War College, suggests that flashpoints have three common characteristics. First, they have a political dimension, meaning that they ‘must be at the forefront of a significant and long-standing political dispute’. Second, geographical proximity is critical – tension spots ‘tend to become greater concerns if they are proximate to both adversaries’. Third, flashpoints ‘threaten to involve or engage more powerful actors in the
international community, raising the possibility of escalation into a broader war’.14
Commentators who point to a coming Asian conflict tend to downplay, if not dismiss, the importance of flashpoints. As Allison argues, ‘more important than the sparks that lead to war, Thucydides teaches us, are the structural factors that lay its foundations’.15
What he means by ‘structural factors’ are those deeper causes of war, such as changes in the balance of military power between nations. While these factors likely form at some distance from – potentially decades before – the onset of conflict, they are considered integral to it. The Australian strategic commentator Hugh White takes a similar stance in his Quarterly Essay Without America: Australia in the New Asia
, arguing that flashpoints are ‘just symptoms’ of an underlying Thucydidean rivalry between a rising China and an America in decline.16
Structural causes are critical to an understanding of many international conflicts. Yet decision-making in crisis situations is highly complex, as Allison showed earlier in his landmark study of the Cuban Missile Crisis – those fateful thirteen days in October 1962 when America and the Soviet Union came perilously close to world-ending nuclear war.17
Allison’s Harvard colleague Joseph Nye helpfully likens the process of analysing conflict to building a fire. The deeper causes are akin to logs: necessary fuel for the flames but insufficient in themselves to ignite. As Nye puts it, logs ‘may sit for a long time and never be lit. Indeed, if it rains before somebody comes along with a match, they may never catch fire.’18
therefore, is an understanding of the more immediate causes of war – the kindling, the paper and the striking of the match. This is why an examination of flashpoints is so important.
Focusing upon deeper, structural factors often reveals much about why a certain war or conflict happened – although typically those factors only become truly apparent with the benefit of hindsight. But it will generally tell us far less about how that conflict came about. The Australian historian Christopher Clark explores this subtle but important distinction between the why and the how of conflict in his bestselling account of the events that led to World War I, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.
Understanding how, not just why, Asia’s major powers might go to war is all the more important to anticipating conflict in a region so diverse. Each of the four flashpoints discussed in this book exhibits a unique dynamic. Each involves a different constellation of key players. Their geography is distinct, with implications for the combustibility of each. History tells us that conflicts escalate more quickly between countries with land borders than between those separated by sea, where the distance militaries need to travel affords more time for diplomacy. And each flashpoint engages the ‘vital interests’ of Asia’s major powers – those political, economic or strategic interests worth going to war over – to quite varying degrees.
Yet the flashpoints are also interconnected, through history, proximity and the potential to erupt into conflict. The cumulative pressure of crises over these flashpoints is pushing this region closer to war.
The four flashpoints: an anatomy
The four flashpoints in this book have traditionally been regarded as Asia’s most prominent geopolitical hotspots. More importantly, they are relevant to what the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey once called ‘wide war’ – conflict that draws in many nations, especially the leading players in the international system.19
To understand the interconnections between them, we need to look to the historical context. All have roots in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II. While Korea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan were disputed areas well before 1945 – centuries before, in some cases – by World War II, they were under Tokyo’s control. Korea and Taiwan were Japanese colonies. The Ryukyu Islands in the East China Sea – a chain that includes, for Tokyo, the Senkaku Islands – was part of Japan. Tokyo had also annexed the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
When forty-eight nations met at San Francisco’s...