There is deep concern that tensions in the South China sea will erupt into a conflict with more aggressive posturing by both the United States, Japan and China, accompanied by the deteriorating situation in North Korea which could erupt into a catastrophic conflict at any time.
Article by Oliver B. Steward, a Doctoral Candidate in International Security at the University of East Anglia.
The source of major instability in global international security is in the Asia Pacific region, with a rising Superpower the People’s Republic of China, and a Great Power trying to reassert itself once again – Japan, and a Superpower unparalleled in military strategy but nonetheless feels threatened in this region. The regional context has become more multipolar and as such a more crowded neighbourhood of international powers – notably the United States, Japan, China and also Russia.
Kenneth Waltz, a Realist scholar in international relations once said a multipolar world brings with it a greater period of instability and conflict. I for one agree with his analysis, and believe the recent maritime developments validates his central claims. However, there are also structural factors, as well as political factors that interact with one another that attribute to this rising tension.
Recently, while not widely reported China launched its own domestically produced aircraft carrier. The ‘Dalian’ is the first 100% domestic-produced aircraft carrier was launched by the ‘People’s Liberation Army Navy’.
What is strategically significant about this launch is it brings the total number of Chinese carriers in the water to two, and as such shifts the maritime strategic balance of power in the region, likely to worry neighbours including Japan, Taiwan and their regional ally the United States. In the meantime, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) commissioned its second Izumo-class helicopter carrier, JS Kaga (DDH 184) this year.
This means the total number of aircraft carriers the Japanese have (technically referred to as helicopter carriers) due to their Pacifist Constitution, numbers two. With tensions in the South China Sea, already high, and the Chinese Coast Guard (separate from China’s People’s Liberal Army Navy’, and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force both individually bigger than our Royal Navy, these are worrying times. With Trump’s bellicose rhetoric towards China and North Korea, North Korea’s missile drills and militarisation, China’s fortification of islands in the South China Sea, and increased patrols by the Japanese, and the United States, it will only take one wrong decision and it could ignite a major naval engagement.
China’s economy is at least equal term if not actually larger in terms of power purchasing parity than the United States and although it does not spend as much on defence as the United States does, taken into consideration Trump’s military spending increases, it set to increase its defence budget by 7% – taken its defence spending over $200 billion dollars compared to the United States $600 billion. This places it within the Great Power category.
However Mearsheimer in the (2001) book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics argues that large powers are not simply satisfied with the security needs of the status quo in their own region, but want to achieve global security interests, which is never achievable, which leads to arms races and conflict. I would argue that applying their theory to the Asia Pacific region, you can see the antecedents and roots of a future conflict taking shape.
Shinzo Abe of Japan is a nationalistic Prime Minister who wants Japan to have more of a role in the Asia – Pacific region. He has attempted to amend the constitution to allow Japanese forces to operate internationally. Currently the Japanese constitution does not permit any offensive posture. However, Shinzo Abe has attempted to allow for greater freedom and flexibility of Japanese armed forces to operate globally. Furthermore recently the United States and the Japanese have been sharing its naval obligations with two Japanese destroyers joining an American aircraft carrier the Carl Vinson off the Korean peninsula for military exercises. Japan also plans to send its largest warship – and its largest aircraft carrier to protect a US supply vessel.
The United States President has a very zero-sum interest concept in which he views the world within a nationalistic context – risking a trade war, and questioning Taiwan’s status. Trump conceives of the global system replete with threats to its national security interest and thus dictates that it should bolster its military spending accordingly. This is evidenced by his direction for increase in U.S. military spending by a further increase of $54 billion dollars to $603 billion total.
Lastly this brings us to China. China is an emerging superpower by its economic indicator, and also its aspirations to take a more global leadership in international affairs. However, decoding Chinese foreign policy is often more of an enigma, and requires a rather interpretivist and spectators lens. Often it can be assumed that Chinese military build-up is the nation’s aspirations to translate its raw economic power into military potential. Its actions in the South China Sea is indicative of a more territorially aggressive posture.
In conclusion, we are witnessing a balance of power, but an attempt to shift that balance of power by one or more Great Powers in the region. The concern, is that these structural and political shifts means there is a greater tendency for conflict and war. Therefore, all efforts should be to engage China diplomatically along with Japan, and the United States and North Korea, with the aim of desecuritizing the region and bring peace and stability to the Asia-Pacific. If the North Korean crisis escalates it has the potential to have a domino effect and bring major powers into conflict. We are in turbulent times.