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8 January 2013

Never mind the Middle East, it’s time to start worrying about the Far East

No one doubts the importance of East Asia to economic policy. China, in particular, will be propping-up global economic growth for the foreseeable future. And yet, when it comes to foreign policy, this vital region barely figures in our headlines (North Korea providing the only consistent exception).

Yet, 2013 could be the year when this changes. Writing in Foreign Policy, Michael Mazza points to rising tensions:

  • “As the world's center of economic gravity shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it's moved from a region of enduring peace to one of pervasive friction. Last spring, China and the Philippines nearly came to blows over a small shoal in the South China Sea. In mid-December, Japan dispatched eight fighter planes after a small Chinese plane entered Japanese airspace, near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. North Korea tested another missile in mid-December, and appears to be preparing for a third nuclear test. Peace between India and Pakistan remains elusive, while Indonesia and the Philippines continue to wrestle with Islamic terrorism.”

Mazza warns us to be on our guard against a range of possible Asian surprises – including a Jihadi attack on China and the chaos that might follow the death of Thailand’s elderly King.

However, the biggest cause of concern is surely the growing rivalry between China, Japan and other nations in the South China Sea. 

Some people regard China’s increasing assertiveness over various disputed islands as nationalistic posturing. But as John Hickman explains on the e-International Relations website, China does have some genuine cause for complaint:

  • “The unspoken grievance is that China and South Korea gained little new territory as Exclusive Economic Zones in the scramble to carve up the oceans during the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Despite their large economies and populations, China and South Korea were entitled to claim only fractions of the areas claimed by the ten states that received the largest shares: the five Anglo-Saxon powers + France, Russia, Indonesia, Japan and Portugal.  The United States and France each acquired more than 11.3 million square kilometers of the oceans.  By comparison, China may claim a mere 879,000 square kilometers – less than the 923,322 square kilometers that the Maldives received.  Given that China has the largest population on the planet, the second largest national economy and the fourth largest pre-UNCLOS land area, awarding 31 other states more area is another humiliation for a people whose modern national narrative consists largely of humiliation by other powers.”

Hickman goes on to draw a striking historical parallel:

  • “Like Germany just before the First World War, China is a continental power that has grown wealthy through industrial exports but is heavily dependent on imported raw materials and whose access to the sea is more limited than the other powers, with the exception of Russia.”

Of course, while we ought to be concerned, that doesn’t mean there's much we can actually do about it. While America still plays a vital role in Pacific, an eastward shift in the foreign policy action will serve to confirm Europe’s increasing irrelevance.


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