Asia No Pacífico

Por: | 27 de marzo de 2015

UnknownMELISSA H.CONLEY TYLER y VICTOR FERGUNSON

To most Europeans, the Asia Pacific has become synonymous with economic growth and dynamism.  While Europe struggled to achieve 0.3% growth, last year the Asia Pacific grew by 6.9%. However, focus on the Asia Pacific’s growing prosperity often leads observers to neglect the region’s security dynamics. In fact, inspection reveals the Asia Pacific is not very pacific at all. It is a region characterised by tensions, rivalries and a growing risk of conflict: a tinderbox threatened by many sparks.  

Nowhere have more sparks emerged than in the South China Sea which Robert Kaplan describes as “on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.”  With strategic advantages to gain — the sea lines of communication that run through the area carry almost fifty per cent of global oil tanker shipments as well and hydrocarbon and fishery resources to exploit – littoral states are taking efforts to strengthen their territorial claims.  Perhaps no state has been quite so forceful as China, which has shown its willingness to use hard power at sea and in the air in order to prosecute its expanding interests in the region.  In this sense, as Walter Russell Mead reminds us, Beijing is acting as rising powers have always done: enforcing territorial claims, securing access to resources and establishing itself as a global power.  

China’s efforts to consolidate its control over maritime features within its ‘nine-dashed line’ have led it to clash with other claimants in the South China Sea:  Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.  These disputes have the ability to escalate, as was seen in May last year when a Vietnamese vessel sunk after allegedly being rammed by a Chinese boat near an oil rig Beijing constructed in a disputed section of the sea, leading to violent anti-Chinese protests in Hanoi.  This year too there have already been reports of Filipino fishing vessels being rammed by Chinese coast guard vessels.  With nationalisms enflamed and resources at stake, it seems unlikely that the various sparks in the South China Sea are likely to be put out in the near future. 

The East China Sea is characterised by similar disputes.  In particular, the ongoing disagreement between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has shown the potential to set off the Asia Pacific tinderbox.  Incursions have become regular occurrences in the surrounding waters and these appear capable of escalating into potentially conflict-sparking scenarios, such as in 2013 when a Chinese navy vessel locked a missile radar onto a Japanese vessel near the islands. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s growing efforts to consolidate Japanese defence and deterrence capabilities, and recent opinion polls revealing that a majority of Chinese believe their country will go to war with Japan, this dispute remains a live and threatening spark.

Similar tensions can be found in the Sea of Japan.  Tokyo and Seoul disagree over the status of the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands which, together with debates over the use of Korean comfort women by the Japanese Army during the World War II, continue to drive a wedge between the two states and heighten regional tensions.  Further north, there are tensions between Japan and Russia, who continues to hold military drills on the disputed South Kuril Islands.

An open conflict over Taiwan is a potential disaster scenario.  While cross-strait relations have been calm recently under incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou, his approval ratings continue to fall in the lead up to 2016 elections.  Should the opposition Democratic Progressive Party be elected, Taipei may again seek greater autonomy from the mainland, threatening to draw its ally Washington into a conflict with Beijing, which will certainly resist any efforts towards formal Taiwanese independence.  

North Korea also continues to pose a fundamental threat to regional security with its insecure leadership, determination to continue its nuclear weapons program and border clashes with the South.  Any escalation of tension here is likely to have wider consequences for the region given the likelihood of Beijing’s support for Pyongyang bringing it to loggerheads with Seoul and its allies in Washington.

Moving westward, China’s ongoing disputes with India also threaten to undermine regional stability.  Potential sparks can be found in increasingly regular troop standoffs along a staggering 4,057 kilometre long, highly militarised and disputed border; Indian ambivalence about Chinese support for Pakistan; and tensions emerging from Beijing’s decision to construct dams upstream diverting water away from Delhi. 

Pacific Island states form another chain of potential sparks in the region.  The South Pacific continues to suffer from political instability, with the government of New Caledonia recently collapsing and youth unemployment and failing infrastructure leading some commentators to suggest violence may soon break out again in Bougainville.  The effects of climate change and more frequent natural disasters in the region, as has been seen recently in Vanuatu, compound these issues.  Such factors threaten to exacerbate social tensions and create refugees as people retreat to higher ground.  

What this wide array of sparks demonstrates is that simple analysis of Asia Pacific security conducted through the lens of the United States-China great power rivalry does not cover the true range of actors, interests and issues at play.  As Mark Beeson has recently argued, it increasingly looks like the United States’ network of alliances in the region are losing utility as the foundation of the regional stability as facts on the ground continue to shift.  Indeed, focusing on arguments about the inevitability of conflict between Beijing and Washington obscures more than it illuminates about regional security as it overlooks the many other disputes that have great potential for escalation.  

More comprehensive analysis is necessary to identify and manage these sparks before they set off a conflagration that burns out of control.  The existence of so many flashpoints underlines the need for states in the region to establish concrete crisis management mechanisms to avoid the growing risk of a spark setting off the volatile Asia Pacific tinderbox.   

It may be an economic powerhouse, just don’t say it’s pacific.

 

* Melissa H. Conley Tyler is National Executive Director and Victor Ferguson is a researcher at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, recently ranked the top think tank in Southeast Asia and the Pacific by the Global Go To Think Tank Index.

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