A US flagship sits in the South China Sea. (Flickr/US Navy)
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Don’t look now, but conditions are deteriorating in the western Pacific. Things are turning ugly, with consequences that could prove deadly and spell catastrophe for the global economy.
In Washington, it is widely assumed that a showdown with Iran over its nuclear ambitions will be the first major crisis to engulf the next secretary of defense—whether it be former Senator Chuck Hagel, as President Obama desires, or someone else if he fails to win Senate confirmation. With few signs of an imminent breakthrough in talks aimed at peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, many analysts believe that military action—if not by Israel, than by the United States—could be on this year’s agenda.
Lurking just behind the Iranian imbroglio, however, is a potential crisis of far greater magnitude, and potentially far more imminent than most of us imagine. China’s determination to assert control over disputed islands in the potentially energy-rich waters of the East and South China Seas, in the face of stiffening resistance from Japan and the Philippines along with greater regional assertiveness by the United States, spells trouble not just regionally, but potentially globally.
Islands, Islands, Everywhere
The possibility of an Iranian crisis remains in the spotlight because of the obvious risk of disorder in the Greater Middle East and its threat to global oil production and shipping. A crisis in the East or South China Seas (essentially, western extensions of the Pacific Ocean) would, however, pose a greater peril because of the possibility of a U.S.-China military confrontation and the threat to Asian economic stability.
The United States is bound by treaty to come to the assistance of Japan or the Philippines if either country is attacked by a third party, so any armed clash between Chinese and Japanese or Filipino forces could trigger American military intervention. With so much of the world’s trade focused on Asia, and the American, Chinese and Japanese economies tied so closely together in ways too essential to ignore, a clash of almost any sort in these vital waterways might paralyze international commerce and trigger a global recession (or worse).
All of this should be painfully obvious and so rule out such a possibility—and yet the likelihood of such a clash occurring has been on the rise in recent months, as China and its neighbors continue to ratchet up the bellicosity of their statements and bolster their military forces in the contested areas. Washington’s continuing statements about its ongoing plans for a “pivot” to, or “rebalancing” of, its forces in the Pacific have only fueled Chinese intransigence and intensified a rising sense of crisis in the region. Leaders on all sides continue to affirm their country’s inviolable rights to the contested islands and vow to use any means necessary to resist encroachment by rival claimants. In the meantime, China has increased the frequency and scale of its naval maneuvers in waters claimed by Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, further enflaming tensions in the region.