Is the long peace in Asia unraveling?

Giant balloons in the shape of a Chinese military tank and Tank Man are placed at the Liberty Square, ahead of June 4th anniversary of military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in Taipei, Taiwan, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RC1477575E00
Editor's note:

The inescapable reality is that Asia’s tectonic plates are shifting. To navigate this changing terrain, Taiwan will need leaders with vision, balance, and strategy, argues Ryan Hass. This piece originally appeared in the Taipei Times.

A year ago, I wrote an editorial for these pages previewing key regional trends to watch – a potential thawing of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, China’s increasing diplomatic activism, and the steady deterioration of U.S.-China relations. A year later, this list has multiplied.

Danger lights are flashing in virtually every corner of Asia. As my Brookings Institution colleague Richard Bush recently warned, the long peace in Asia increasingly appears at risk.

In Northeast Asia, Japan and the Republic of Korea are locked in a mutually destructive contest of wills over unresolved historical grievances. Chinese and Russian forces recently conducted their first-ever joint air patrols through the Sea of Japan, triggering Japan and South Korea each to scramble military jets to intercept the mission. North Korea is expanding its nuclear and missile capabilities, all while Kim Jong Un creates the illusion – at least in the mind of President Trump – that he is interested in bargaining away his arsenal for economic incentives.

A U.S.-China trade clash quickly is evolving into a comprehensive confrontation, whereby every dimension of the relationship is becoming defined by enmity. China’s ongoing purchases of Iranian oil in contravention of American sanctions, and America’s stated intent to deploy intermediate-range missiles to the region following its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty – and China’s pledge of a military response – are crowding into an already long list of strains.

The cross-Strait situation is growing more tense, as China attempts to intimidate Taiwan and manipulate public discourse ahead of January 2020 elections. An action-reaction cycle has taken root between Washington and Taipei versus Beijing, with both sides believing they are reacting to intolerable actions of the other.

The situation in Hong Kong is combustible, as citizens seek to staunch the erosion of their rights under the Basic Law, some protestors resort to violence, and Hong Kong authorities respond with rising levels of force. Chinese authorities have warned of the limits of their patience with civil disobedience and violence and have backed their words with images of a massing of forces near the border with Shenzhen. There are real risks of a violent crackdown.

Xinjiang has become a scar on China’s international image. Even though international censure has been relatively mute to date, the reputational damage of involuntarily locking up an unknown but large number of citizens is dimming China’s ability to attract support for its vision of regional or global leadership.

Tensions in the South China Sea remain elevated. In recent weeks, the Philippines has appealed to the United States for security protection following Chinese incursions, and China and Vietnam have been locked in a naval stand-off. Concerns about Beijing’s increasing encroachment into Southeast Asia have been amplified by reports that China is developing a military base in Cambodia, its first in Southeast Asia. Leaders throughout the region, including stalwart friends of the United States such as Australian Prime Minister Morrison and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee, as well as Pacific island leaders, have been sounding alarm about intensifying great power rivalry.

And if that was not enough, two nuclear-armed powers in South Asia are at loggerheads, following India’s sudden announcement that it was revoking Kashmir’s special status as a state with legislative autonomy. This decision puts the Muslim-majority state under New Delhi’s political directive, and in so doing, inflames tensions with Pakistan.

As Gideon Rachman recently warned in Financial Times, we may be witnessing the unraveling of the Asian strategic order. The last four decades in Asia delivered historic economic progress and improvement in human welfare in every country of the region except North Korea. The United States underpinned the order, however imperfectly, by using its dominant power to deter conflict, maintain a stable security environment, and promote open markets. China during this period largely deferred external ambitions, focusing instead on lifting up its own people. In cross-Strait relations, China mostly stuck to peaceful pursuit of unification, while Taiwan leaders generally exercised prudence about inflaming nationalism for political advantage.

Now, Trump and Xi both seem unencumbered by lessons of recent history. Trump openly questions the value of alliances and advances a foreign policy guided by nationalism, nativism, and unilateralism. He is committed to putting “America first,” even if doing so calls into question America’s principled leadership in the region. Meanwhile, Xi appears determined to build up China’s military, push out its defense perimeter, crush dissent, coopt and intimidate Taiwan, gain greater control over disputed territories, and assert Chinese leadership in regional affairs.

In other words, Taiwan’s external environment is growing increasingly complex, and not just in terms of cross-Strait relations. While the Trump administration’s approval of F-16V fighter jets provides reassurance of America’s commitment to Taiwan, there are risks with overlearning the lesson. The inescapable reality is that Asia’s tectonic plates are shifting. Taiwan will not be immune to the shifts, and the United States will not be able to shield Taiwan from all of them. It’s too early to tell which problems will mellow and which will metastasize, but it would be a risky bet to assume that all of them will simply resolve themselves. To navigate this changing terrain, Taiwan will need leaders with vision, balance, and strategy. Such attributes should be front of mind when voters go to the polls in January.