I wrote last week that the risk of war in Europe was back. This week, unfortunately, the likelihood of confrontation in Asia seems to be spiking higher as well.
Two events in particular have driven this development, separate but subtly interlinked. On the Korean peninsula, the deployment of a new South Korean missile defense system and imposition of new U.S. sanctions on the north has nudged tensions higher. Now, an international court decision on China’s claims in the South China Sea could further amplify already growing posturing over disputed maritime boundaries.
For the United States, particularly in an election year, this is a pretty toxic brew. Washington might be the preeminent global military superpower, but it is now being pulled in multiple directions on a scale not seen in recent history. Nor is it truly in control of its own destiny – in Asia even more than Europe, its foes and allies are often calling the shots while the United States is inevitably left playing catch-up.
As with its dealings with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it faces a balance that is awkward and impossible to determine. If Washington looks too conciliatory, it risks being charged with weakness and may end up encouraging all other parties to take matters into their own hands. Try too hard to dominate the situation and deter potential adversaries, however, and the United States risks simply inflaming matters and ushering in the type of conflict it is desperate to avoid.
Take the North Korean example. Particularly since the accession of Kim Jong Un, the United States has faced a deadly quandary. Under the young Kim’s rule, Pyongyang has become more unpredictable, the human rights situation on the ground reportedly significantly worse. Most seriously from the perspective of outsiders, North Korea has been aggressively arming and moving firmly – if somewhat unsteadily – towards refining its nuclear weapons and missile systems until they pose a major threat in the region and beyond.
Just because it is working on such weapons does not mean Pyongyang necessarily has direct ambitions to use them. Most outside analysts believe its true aim in wanting such weapons is to deter outside powers from considering any Iraq-style regime change. Still, making solid predictions about the highly secretive country is far from exact science and it’s hardly surprising its neighbors want to take precautions.
That makes the decision to deploy the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea entirely reasonable. Missile defense systems like that, however, can themselves raise tensions even though they are defensive systems. In Europe, the deployment of a missile shield in eastern and southern Europe primarily to counter any threat from the Middle East clearly antagonized Russia, suddenly wary of losing its own long-held ability to strike European targets with nuclear and conventional weapons.
In that sense, it might not have been the best time to apply a new round of sanctions to North Korean officials and institutions. In response, Pyongyang has said it will close the one remaining diplomatic channel two U.S. officials via its UN mission. In the short term, the most likely consequence will be to make matters worse for the two U.S. nationals currently held by North Korea. It will also make handling any future crisis that much harder – and that cannot be a good thing.
The key to handling North Korea, however, has always been China. Beijing is Pyongyang’s only real ally and supporter, and while its ability to control North Korea’s activities has always been limited and imperfect, it does have multiple economic and other levers.
The problem, of course, is that relations between China, its regional neighbors and Washington are currently also seriously deteriorating. Outright conflict on that front probably remains less likely than a more limited war involving North Korea, although it would also be cataclysmic. As perhaps the world’s preeminent trading and exporting nation, Beijing has little appetite for international isolation on the scale of North Korea. But it also has very real ambitions, growing military capability and a government that has placed the quest for ever-growing geopolitical power at the heart of its domestic legitimacy.
In that sense, this week’s decision by the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague over China’s maritime boundaries may be something of a turning point, and not in a good way. China largely boycotted the process, which it said had little legitimacy. The problem for Beijing, however, is that most of the countries do take it seriously – and the court roundly rejected Beijing’s assertions to rights to most of the South China Sea.
Chinese regular and auxiliary maritime and other forces have already taken up a relatively assertive position on some of the disputed islands and shoals, and there seems little prospect of them are withdrawing anytime soon. The court judgment, however, may ramp up the confidence of nations like the Philippines to take a much more aggressive approach themselves, with potentially seriously destabilizing consequences.
It’s not necessarily all bad news. While the tribunal did conclude that Beijing had trampled on the territorial rights of the Philippines, it also suggested that some disputed areas such as Scarborough Shoal could be shared, for example when it came to fishing rights. That might offer a path to cooperation – or it could just make confrontation more likely.
Last year, a poll of leading national security experts put the risk of a conventional or nuclear war between the United States and China as marginally lower than the risk of a similar clash between NATO and Russia. That probably remains the case – but the risk of states like the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam — many U.S. Treaty allies — finding themselves in a fight may well be higher.
If peace is based around consensus, the direction of travel in Asia this year seems to be entirely the wrong way.