Though it looks like it may be another quiet day in Asia in the coming months, the last six months have seen a trend of major conflicts across the region.
China stepped into a territorial dispute with India in the Bay of Bengal by constructing an artificial island capable of withstanding an Indian navy invasion. The China-India row is just one of the hundreds of flashpoints across the Chinese mainland that may spill over to the wider region. Chinese investments and infrastructure will help cover more of the southern Chinese coastline, making an armed Chinese presence in the region more likely than ever.
Japan and China have also been at odds on the disputed Diaoyu Islands, making negotiations for a Japanese territorial agreement over the Senkaku Islands with Beijing unlikely anytime soon.
But China’s influence in the region will do much more than simply extend its territorial borders. It will also help exacerbate another threat to regional stability: China is building nuclear submarines. China deployed two new Jin class submarines in May and has ordered an additional six. Japanese officials believe China has eight submarines. Few other countries possess such large fleets and are likely to grow in number. This could leave Japan without sufficient deterrence to stop a conflict with China, despite its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons.
North Korea may be playing the long game to master missile technology before it even begins testing intercontinental ballistic missiles. If so, the nuclear deterrent that would accompany an ICBM from Pyongyang could make the region a powder keg for decades.
News of these developments in Asia comes on the heels of President Trump’s tough talk on the situation in Syria, including by announcing a new method for American strikes. He put the onus on Syria, Russia and Iran to do something about the Syrian chemical weapons attack. As the United States closes in on Assad, the bellicose rhetoric from Washington may indeed spark some action.
But the parallel with today’s situation in Asia is notable. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, lifted the tepid U.S. policy toward China’s belligerence when he decided to shift focus and refocus military assets on the region instead of a war in the Middle East. His target was his predecessor’s legacy. Obama’s resolve did not endure, but his words did not disappear and neither did the threats. After all, Asia is still the place that can start a major new war in the world.
This week, two readers submitted reader commentary. Amena Abdulfattah’s review of the indictment of Pakistan’s military leaders was scathing in its criticisms and its demands for justice. Sheikh Jamal Solangi’s commentary reminded us how intractable some of the problems are in the region.
All of these responses garnered both praise and criticism. Many of us in the region were relieved that the indicted generals faced no repercussions for those they had supported. Others thought the Indictment was another step toward accountability that would address the problem of military influence in Pakistan, where many top military leaders benefit from the same connections with their civilian counterparts as other potentating actors in the country. Solangi’s piece, while plausible and well-written, brought a valid point to light: how much longer can the United States keep the political vulnerabilities of our allies like South Korea, Japan and the Philippines in the dark before they too begin to question the efficacy of American influence and ask for leverage from other, more strategic partners?