On Wednesday, North Korea successfully launched a rocket that achieved what few countries outside of the United States, China, and Russia have -- a demonstrated long-range ballistic missile launch capability. The country is now one step closer to being able to launch a nuclear bomb across the Pacific. In early December, India's top admiral seemed to suggest that his navy would protect India-Vietnam oil exploration in the South China Sea from Chinese belligerence, while China and Japan aggressively re-affirmed their "sacred" right to the disputed Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu). China and the Philippines are still facing off over a shoal in the South China Sea. It's all enough to make one wonder: Is 2013 the year that conflict finally breaks out in Asia?
It was all supposed to happen two decades ago. 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:" A combination of nationalism, power rivalries, historical animosity, arms buildups, and energy needs, they argued, would lead Asia to become the next conflict hotspot. For instance, Aaron Friedberg, an international relations scholar at Princeton, wrote, "While civil wars and ethnic strife will continue for some time to smolder along Europe's peripheries, in the long run it is Asia that seems far more likely to be the cockpit of great power conflict." Instead, the region became the engine of world growth, home to an economic boom that has lifted millions out of poverty and shaken up the global balance of power.
To be sure, there were occasional flare-ups. By 1998, China had tested missiles to scare Taiwan, but no major conflicts erupted. In 2003, regional tensions rose as North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but the actual wars were in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan. By 2008, still nothing. In fact, since China and Vietnam's brief scuffle in 1979, there has not been war between states in Asia. None of the scholars predicted the relative stability that prevailed for the last two decades. Instead, they made a bet based on their reading of history: Japan would soon flex military muscle commensurate with its growing economic strength; China, though still poor, was about to enter a growth phase that would make it muscular rather than fat and happy; and the United States' uncertainty about its post-Cold War commitments to Asia would lead to a mad power scramble.
But now, Asia may finally be "ripe for rivalry," as those scholars predicted. Tensions between Japan and China over the last decade, inflamed by historical and territorial disputes, are the highest they've been since World War II. Both sides are taking unprecedented steps in moving vessels around the Senkakus, and an altercation spinning out of control is certainly possible.
The spats are not just between traditional competitors like Japan and China, but between key U.S. allies in Asia. Disputes between Japan and South Korea over tiny islands in the Sea of Japan have been significantly strained by President Myung-bak Lee's unprecedented visit to one in August 2012, and Japanese legislature's vociferous criticism of the South Korean president. Historical enmity stemming from Japan's occupation of South Korea has made 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 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.