Furthermore, domestic politics in the region do not bode well for regional relations. The likely return of conservative Shinzo Abe as Japanese prime minister after the Dec. 16 elections would not be so troubling, except that he will probably need a coalition to run the government. A union with the more liberal Democratic Party of Japan could moderate Abe's nationalism, but that may be difficult. Abe could instead join forces with the party of ultra-right wing political maverick Ishihara Shintaro, the outspoken former governor of Tokyo who this year provoked Japan to nationalize the Senkakus, inciting protests across China. Even without Ishihara, Abe is almost certain to tack harder to the right on military issues, as he did when he was last prime minister, from 2006-2007. Some Japanese political insiders think Abe might repudiate the August 1993 apology for using comfort woman in Korea during World War II (one of the most contentious issues between the two countries), further inflaming Seoul-Tokyo tensions. The status quo 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 after decades of inordinate attention given to Europe and the Middle East. But the pivot has also strained U.S.-China relations as the new leadership in Beijing sees Obama's policies as an effort to contain China's rise. While U.S. officials deny this accusation, the pivot has increased political competition between the United States and China in Southeast Asia. Regional multilateral institutions have become the playing field for pitched contests between U.S. and Chinese diplomats to control the agenda and woo Southeast Asian nations. Of course, U.S.-China competition in Northeast Asia and the Pacific, where both sides have long prepared for war, is nothing new. But it is precisely because of this history that conflict between the United States and China in East Asia is unlikely. In Southeast Asia, however, because Washington and Beijing do not have a long history of interaction, the potential for miscalculation is high.
Lurking amid all of these new dynamics is North Korea. 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. The reactions from the region's major powers will be as unsettling as they are predictable: The United States and South Korea will step up military exercises in the Yellow Sea. A new Abe government will seek to enhance Japan's missile-defense systems. The United States will use the splashdown of the second stage of the North Korean missile off the Philippines to spur greater regional defense cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, raising Chinese hackles. And finally, as North Korea moves closer to becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons power over the next few years, countries in the region that feel threatened will seek greater military weaponry on their own. These reactions, in turn, could spark an arms race in the region.
Maybe Asia is ripe for rivalry after all.