Tensions in East Asia are rising, and increasingly so. Unfortunately, the topic does not get enough attention in Europe.
Just a few days ago, the Chinese government decided to cancel all meetings with Japanese officials. In the old days, this might well have been a declaration of war. Today, it is not relatedly that grave, but still a serious issue.
The Chinese and the Japanese currently clash because Japanese patrol officers arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel that rammed two Japanese boats. While the crew has meanwhile been sent home to China, the captain remains in Japanese custody. Head over to CNN and the New York Times for more information.
The incident is not really grave. The most important thing to take with you at this point is thus that tensions between China and Japan are big enough to inflate an accident as meaningless as this one. The Chinese escalate the incident to test their position: Will the Japanese cooperate? How will the United States react in all of this? How far can we go? What is really happening, thus, is the visualization of the power transitions that are ongoing in the international system.
This power transition is also visible in the South China Sea. There, China clashes with a couple of Southeast Asian nations over the resource-rich and strategically important Spratly and Paracel Islands.
In the South China Sea, the United States took position with the Southeast Asian nations by proclaiming that the United States will take sides for a solution based on international law. This directly flies in China’s face, because it sees these waters as its territory, and thus as domestic affairs.
With regard to Japan, it is clear to most observers that the recent events will lead Japan to seek a much closer security cooperation with the United States. I have argued for such a coalition already some time ago.
South and North Korea are yet two other points of friction. North Korea, closely allied with China, is notoriously unstable, und armed to the teeth. South Korea, having a fair share of animosities with both China and North Korea, is heavily supported by the United States
It does not take much to conclude that East Asia is the most important region to future security considerations. The focal point in all of this has to lie on shifting capabilities. Contrary to what many believed, rising China more and more alienates its neighbors, and increasingly so, the more powerful it becomes. Since more recently, after its more or less successful “charm offensive”, China additionally does its part in actively transporting a picture of it being a security threat. As some have predicted, its rising capabilities and interests simply leave it no other choice. Rising powers provoke balancing behavior, not bandwagoning behavior, as the specialists say.
What this also means is that there is a unique opportunity for the United States to strengthen its position towards China. It has taken this opportunity in Southeast Asia, now it remains to see how it reacts with regard to Japan.
The Asian press has understood these developments. Articles on rising and falling powers and shifting power balances are now commonplace. Have a look at some of the articles in the Asia Sentinel, which is an accessible online source worth reading. In Europe, however, it seems as if we feel a bit too comfortable about international security to even take note of all these developments.