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What to Expect in East Asia in 2015

December 22, 2014  Nori Katagiri

Although East Asia had a fairly quiet 2014 in military and economic terms, there are plenty of unresolved issues simmering in the background, awaiting the right – or wrong – circumstances to cause them to boil over. Dr. Nori Katagiri, a professor at the United States Air Force Air War College, examines some of these issues and their potential triggers and suggests how Japan can handle the dangerous tensions lurking beneath the surface in relations among countries in the region.

Broadly speaking, East Asia in 2014 turned out to be generally stable, both militarily and economically. For Japan, the year left a modest expectation for improvement in diplomatic relations, with Prime Minister Abe having had brief conversations with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts at the APEC meeting last month, a feat considered nearly impossible a few months earlier.

What major events can we expect to take place in East Asia next year? In this article, I will explore some of the key developments of this past year to examine what we can reasonably expect to see next year. In particular I will examine how political and economic events of the past few months will affect the stability of the region in the year ahead.

Will military tension cause war in East Asia?

One of the most important questions we face in the field of international relations is the possibility of war between nations. Japan's external environment has become tense in this respect. While the Soviet threat has declined since the Cold War's end, Japan has faced a growing set of threats from its west, North Korea and China especially. As is well known, Japan's territorial integrity has suffered in recent months. Ranging from events like China's unilateral announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone in 2013 to the mass appearance of Chinese coral poachers near the Ogasawara Islands in Japan's exclusive economic zone, Japan has proven largely incapable of proactively preventing foreign intrusions in its territory.

Recent data from Japan's Coast Guard points out the rise in the number of Chinese ships entering Japanese territory in the last few years. Data from the Joint Staff of the Ministry of Defense also implies that Chinese aircraft have violated Japan's air space at an increasing rate, in addition to the rise of violations by Russian planes. This set of data readily demonstrates that Japan's deterrence is not as effective as it should be and that the Japanese government has yet to take any visibly effective measures on this problem.

The tension at Panmunjom. (Photo credits: Author)

In the Korean Peninsula, we see a degree of strategic stability – there is little chance of a large-scale North Korean invasion in the near future – despite occasional skirmishes and North Korea's missile launches and nuclear weapons testing. Yet there is much uncertainty regarding the peninsula's future, especially in terms of unification, leaving most fundamental political questions largely unresolved between the two sides.

Similarly, it would be difficult to expect a quick end to the tension between South Korea and Japan. A summit among Chinese, Korean, and Japanese leaders, as rumored to occur in the next few months, might lead to a diplomatic breakthrough in East Asia, but the combination of territorial disputes, historical disagreements, controversy over the name of the Sea of Japan, and mutual distrust make it difficult for Korean and Japanese leaders to cooperate on common interests.

Anti-Japan protest near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, in March 2014.

Problems are not limited to Northeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, there has been a lingering conflict for autonomy in various parts of the Philippines. Thailand suffered a coup earlier this year, and in Myanmar the nascent democracy movement has reached a stalemate, coupled with the continued state suppression of several ethnic minority groups. There have been conflicts over water in various parts of the Indochina peninsula.

Additionally, the naval confrontation between China and Vietnam and the Philippines is likely to continue. Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, have strengthened their relationships with the United States in recent years, which in turn might increase the chance of U.S. armed forces being involved in conflict in the region in the future. Moreover, the Philippines has strengthened its cooperation with Japanese armed forces, which also increases the likelihood that whatever happens in the South China Sea will affect the stability of the East China Sea.

Will East Asian nations' internal problems cause war in the region?

Among the questions most relevant to the likelihood of conflict in East Asia the type of political regimes in Asian nations is key. Whether they are democratic or not influences the likelihood of peace in the region. The so-called democratic peace theory in international relations studies posits that democracies do not fight one another. There are several mechanisms for this, but one of the most relevant here is that the public, who would end up paying for expensive wars against other democracies, are likely to electorally punish their leaders, effectively deterring them from fighting in the first place. According to this theory, we can surmise that if socialist states like North Korea and China become democratic, chances will rise for peace in East Asia.

There are at least two problems with this view. First, it is unlikely that North Korea and China will become democratic; even if a democratic government took power in these countries, it would require a long time to take root. In parts of China there has been progress in this regard, such as local level elections held in recent years, but the Communist Party's control is still strong and systematic. The other problem is that, while democracy might mean peace, the process to get there may not. The reason for this is that democratization often causes conflict between the old guard and new elites who end up using nationalism against foreign threats, as a result increasing the chance of going to war with other countries.

A key point here rests with countries that are possibly on a path to democracy like China as well as non-democratic states like North Korea and Myanmar. One may wonder what impact a democratization movement in China would have on its foreign relations, especially with countries that contest China's naval claims in the South China Sea. Would that increase the chance of war with Vietnam and the Philippines? To further complicate the matter, the United States has been increasing its military and diplomatic presence in the region as part of its rebalance to Asia. It is clear that a U.S. presence has the power to deter its opponents. But if China sees them as a threat, this perception, coupled with the rise of Chinese nationalism, may add to sources of tension for naval conflict in the region.

Anti-government protest in Taipei, March 2014.

The main reason for the recent protests in Hong Kong was Beijing's perceived political intervention into the election scheduled for 2017 in the Special Administrative Region. Although calmer lately, the central issue has yet to be resolved. In addition, contentious ethnic and religious minority issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as internal inequality and corruption in China remain unsolved. Also important is Taiwan. Unlike a few decades ago when we would see crises over the Taiwan Strait, today we see Taipei and Beijing working on their differences to focus on economic cooperation and tourism projects, leading to a degree of cross-strait stability. Yet the central issue between the two – Taiwan's political status – has yet to be resolved. China's opposition to Taiwan's independence is clear, and Taiwan is split between pro-status quo and pro-China, as seen recently in a student occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March.

Will economic interdependence bring about peace in East Asia?

Although East Asia has been largely stable in the security aspect, there remain a few unresolved political issues in various parts of the region, leaving a handful of conflict hotspots to be managed by present and future leaders. In contrast, economically, we see more nations involved in cooperation.

There is a theory in international relations studies known as capitalist peace. It posits that because war is costly, capitalist countries are likely to avoid war against each other and instead seek to manage differences peacefully. This is peace generated by capitalist interactions, rather than democratic values and mechanisms I mentioned above.

One of the best examples of this is seen in the Taiwan Strait. The Ma Ying-Jeou administration has distanced itself from longstanding independence movements, solidified its stance for economic collaboration with the mainland and kept the political status quo. While different from the mainland in type of regime, Taiwan has stabilized cross-strait relations by way of trade, investment, tourism and interdependence. While China is not a capitalist state, its open economic policy in coastal areas like Shanghai have seen them well integrated into the regional economy.

China's economic influence has been widespread across Southeast Asia, too, which in turn reduces the probability of conflict. In addition to large Chinese diaspora communities in countries like Malaysia and Singapore, there has been a wave of Chinese investment in places like Manila. Of course, an excessive economic presence may cause local problems because capitalist practice generates both winners and losers. If China's territorial claims in the South China Sea become more politicized, its economic influence in the region may become more of a political liability than an asset. One example of this was the series of riots against ethnic Chinese communities in Indonesia during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Economic cooperation has progressed hand-in-hand with the regionalization of Asia. While negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership have moved rather slowly, we should keep in mind that these negotiations were not meant to be easy in the first place. On the other hand, China has launched an initiative to develop the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership where East Asian countries would be the center of regional cooperation. The key here is the role of the United States. In addition to America's role in Asian regional groups, we should also pay attention to the Chinese-led version of an Asian development and infrastructure bank. These institutions can be seen as the forefront of Chinese regional diplomacy intended in part to increase its soft power across the region.

For the Abe administration, it remains important to restore Japan's economic relationship with Asia's largest economy and deal with issues like the trade deficit, protection of intellectual property, imports of minerals like rare earths, as well as the pernicious effects of ongoing cyber attacks on Japan's government agencies and private sector.

Implications for Japan

There have been no diplomatic breakthroughs among East Asian nations in the past year. Nor has there been much progress in resolving many of the key political issues mentioned here. This view leaves two main points for Japan in the year of 2015.

First, because it is not realistic to expect these problems to be resolved in a short time, it is advisable that Japan adopt proactive diplomatic stances on its own. It may help Tokyo to work more closely with countries like the Philippines, in addition to the United States, to explore common policies to deal with territorial disputes with China. It might also help for Japan to proactively enhance its leadership role in economic cooperation in the region. The other implication is for Tokyo's security policy to be less dependent on American extended deterrence. Japan can and should adopt a more robust hedging strategy to make its military power more credible in order to maintain a relatively secure strategic landscape in its surrounding areas.

Views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air War College.

The author has a doctorate in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, has researched counter-terrorism and strategic communications at RAND Corporation, and currently teaches at the United States Air Force Air War College at Maxwell AFB.

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