The Wars of Asia’s Future

Artificial islands being built by China in the South China Sea

Look at the geopolitical situation in the world today.

The Middle East is grappling with a Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, the growing clout of Iran, the breakdown of Syria and Iraq, the emergence of ISIS/ISIL, a reduction in US influence, the introduction of Chinese influence and changing energy supplies globally.

Africa is juggling a fight against Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, the breakdown of Libya, growing piracy problems in East Africa (i.e. Somalia), political and social divisions in Burundi, competition between China, India and the United States, and changing power dynamics as Nigeria replaces South Africa as the largest economy on the continent.

South America is divided as Cuba and Venezuela pursue a better relationship with the United States while Argentina faces off against Western hedge-funds for survival of its economy and currency. Ecuador and Bolivia continue to oppose the West over NSA spying, China has become South America’s lender, while Brazil struggles to define whether it is pro-US or pro-South America.

Europe is rife with uncertainty over the fate of Greece and by extension the eurozone, while NATO and Russia are both taking steps that are fuelling more tensions. Ukraine remains divided, illegal immigration is causing countries like Italy, Switzerland, Hungary and Serbia to take desperate measures, Britain is pursuing a “Brexit” referendum as individual states like Catalonia (Spain) pursue secession.

Whether by strategy or coincidence, the only region of the world that is free of geopolitical conflict is North America. Asia on the other hand has more geopolitical conflicts than the rest of the world combined.


“Whether by strategy or coincidence, the only region of the world that is free of geopolitical conflict is North America.”

The threat of war in Asia has never been greater. Ask any intelligence analyst and they will tell you that it is no longer a question of “if” but “when”. Alongside the threat of war in Asia is what it will mean for the world. Defence treaties exist and alliances are forming that risk turning an Asian war into a global war.

Below are three wars that threaten to derail Asia and by extension, the world.


China-Japan

The conflict between China and Japan is historical. China remains angry at Japan’s occupation of mainland China during WWII. Since 1945, China has faced major internal instability (i.e. civil war, cultural revolution) while Japan, through support from the United States, turned into the second-largest economy in the world (until recently when China took that spot).

Ties between both countries have only declined in recent years because of territorial disputes. The Senkaku/Diayou Islands continue to be the biggest source of tension as both countries claim ownership. In 2012, Japan “purchased” the islands fuelling anti-Japan protests in mainland China. In 2013, China introduced an ADIZ (air defence identification zone) in the East China Sea.

Japan is now pursuing a more aggressive military strategy that features a major change in diplomatic relations with China. Prime Minister Abe has visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial for Japanese dead soldiers — many who were war criminals. This struck at the heart of Chinese (and South Korean) pain regarding WWII and was a clear sign of Japan’s changing attitude.

Two years later tensions have not quelled. Japan, through its new military police, is proposing joint patrols in the South China Sea with the United States. Japan is also moving to increase its own patrols around the disputed islands. China has stayed suspiciously quiet since 2013 regarding the disputed islands, instead turning its attention towards the South China Sea (explored later).

The only clear show of China’s attitude towards Japan was when President Xi Jinping met his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during APEC 2014. An awkward moment of hand shakes and subtle expressions.

The disputed islands are likely to remain a major thorn in the Sino-Japanese relationship. For now, one of the main deterrents stopping this territorial confrontation turning into a full-blown war is the defence treaty Japan has with the United States. As big as China has become, they don’t want to risk war with the most powerful military force in the world — yet.

In the future, as China grows its military capabilities, invests heavily into cyber warfare and deepens its investments and partnerships globally, a defence treaty with the United States won’t be as big of a deterrent as it once was. The possibility of a China-Japan war is increasing as China increases its marketshare in the world.


India-Pakistan

For years, Kashmir has been called the most dangerous area in the world. This spot has likely been taken by ISIS-occupied territories now, but Kashmir and the tensions it represents continue to threaten war in South Asia.

India and Pakistan have experienced high-amounts of tensions in recent years as fighting along the Line of Control (LOC) in Jammu and Kashmir increase. In 2014, “skirmishes” between both sides reached their worst since 2003. As of July, 2015, both countries are involved in on-going fighting while Pakistan has allegedly shot down an Indian spy drone.

One of the biggest deterrents of the war is that both sides have nuclear weapons. Like “MAD” during the Cold War, New Delhi and Islamabad won’t hold back if one of them launches at the other. Additionally, both China and Russia are now directly working with Pakistan on defensive deals. China is selling submarines to Pakistan while Russia is holding military drills. Meanwhile, the United States and Japan are seeing a new phase of cooperation with India following the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.

The possibility of war remains high and unlike before, when it was just India and Pakistan, there are other countries who have a stake (i.e. China). Another terrorist attack in India (like the attacks in 2008) will force India to respond military, not diplomatically. It’s also possible that current border skirmishes will gradually increase into a full-blown war.

Another problem is that both India and Pakistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an organization built on pillars of defence and cooperation. If two member states go to war against each other, the effectiveness of the organization will be diminished — something Beijing and Moscow don’t want.

Alongside this, India is a member of the BRICS, as is Russia and China. If Pakistan and India go to war and either Russia or China stand idle or push support for Pakistan, how strong of a relationship will India have with Russia and China in the BRICS group?

In the past, an India and Pakistan war provoked fear because of the potential use of nuclear weapons. That threat is still very real but alongside it are new players, emerging organizations and overlapping interests.


South China Sea

The South China Sea holds the highest risk of war breaking out because of what’s at stake. The EIA in the United States projects that 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exist in the South China Sea, a sum that is equivalent to oil reserves in Mexico. Every country bordering on the South China Sea is rapidly developing, requiring large amounts of energy to sustain their growth.

Clearly, China has the largest hunger. But countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei all have equal claims to the area — claims that sometimes overlap.

The biggest challenge is clearly with China who has taken major steps to lay claim to the region. They have placed oil-rigs in Vietnamese waters, fired water cannons at Filipino fisherman and are now building artificial islands in the Spratly Islands.

In response, countries are taking steps to protect themselves against what they see as “Chinese aggression”. Japan is selling ships to the Philippines while Indonesia is building a brand new military base in the South China Sea.

There’s also the role that organizations will play in the disputes. Already, multiple members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are preparing patrols of the South China Sea. Is this the beginning of ASEAN expanding into a military organization like NATO? And if so, is their main goal the protection of the South China Sea or protection against China?

The stakes in the South China Sea are the highest in all of Asia because of the need for energy, the fear of territorial infringement and the inclusion of so many different countries.

There is a deep suspicion and paranoia in the region about what China’s emergence as a global power will mean. Will the Chinese military be used aggressively or passively? Will China’s economic clout be used to protest or push a certain agenda? Above all, can smaller nations stand a chance?


What the future holds?

Dozens of pieces are at play in Asia. Japan is moving away from decades of passive military policy to a more aggressive and independent defensive strategy that includes greater cooperation with the United States and India. China is rapidly building its military capabilities — its new nuclear missiles can reach the United States.

India, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, is truly implementing its “Act East” policy. Their relationship with countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan and Vietnam have reached new heights, both solidifying Indian influence in Asia-Pacific and containing China in South Asia. Meanwhile Pakistan is seeing China as a partner for the 21st century, helping Islamabad offset any losses with Washington.

The South China Sea remains volatile. Tensions continue to flare. War threatens to rope in the United States if the Philippines goes to war. The geopolitical effects of energy, which used to be limited to the Middle East, are now appearing in Asia.

The potential for destruction remains high. Countries around the world are taking note. The problem is, there is no clear strategy to alleviate tensions.

Energy is a requirement. Territory is sovereignty. History is pain.

And in Asia, all three are clashing.