The Really Dangerous Region

Israelis, for obvious reasons, are convinced they live in the most dangerous region in the world. The outgoing year has done nothing to disabuse them of that conviction – the Syrian civil war has rumbled on and, although Assad is being relieved of (some? all? most?) of his chemical weapons, the fact that he used them on his own people, as well as the possibility that Hezbollah may have obtained some of these – not to mention the growing power of al-Qaeda affiliated groups within the Syrian rebellion – do little to engender feelings of safety and tranquility.

Yet however undeniably dangerous the Middle East is, that does not preclude the possibility that other places are even less tranquil and safe. In fact, an intelligent and objective Martian charged with following events on earth would most likely be reporting back to his superiors that they should keep a very close watch on the seas around China. That is where tension is rapidly mounting and where the potential for action of the lethal sort is greatest.

Although northeast Asia has always been a strong contender for the dubious distinction of being the world’s number one powder keg, for a long time this was due almost solely to the – admittedly prodigious – efforts of North Korea, and the lunatic dynasty/ clique that runs that benighted country. Having obtained nuclear weapons and repeatedly demonstrated its capability to launch them, North Korea has long posed a clear and very present danger to South Korea and Japan and, by extension, to the US.

Yet, after all these years of threats and even occasional incidents, even the immediate neighbors have grown used to North Korea’s antics. Familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then at least apathy. Indeed, this year has proven that the people most threatened by Kim III are his close family and their friends. Furthermore, even if he and his regime remain dangerous and unpredictable, they are being overshadowed in menace by the big boys.

These are none other than the region’s traditional rivals and enemies, China and Japan. What makes the region so combustible is that both of these countries, each for its own reasons, is looking for trouble. Given their proximity to each other, it seems inevitable that sooner or later they will bump into one another – and then there really will be big trouble.

That Japan has readopted an aggressive pose seems weird, if not downright incredible. After all, Japan became a ‘pacifist’ country after 1945 – which is to say that it had pacifism thrust upon it, but for a long time it seemed happy to be that way. It concentrated in getting rich instead of making war, while its (American-imposed) constitution prevents it from fighting overseas and strictly limits the size and functions of its armed forces – which are now termed ‘self-defence forces’.

If that is not enough reason enough to avoid fights, Japan has become the paradigm for an ageing country, with the mother of all demographic busts and massive socio-economic problems. These are not the classic ingredients for military buildups, yet the current prime minister, Shinto Abe, is an avowed nationalist and he and his party are determined to break out of the ‘self-defence’ mode. Despite the already huge budget deficit, Abe is engaged in ramping up defence spending on a broad range of weapons and increased manpower.

As for China, it is hardly news that the country that is already the world’s second-largest economy (having elbowed aside none other than Japan for the title) is intent on achieving a military and strategic weight commensurate with its economic clout. There is considerable debate among experts as to how far afield China intends to project its power, but no doubt whatsoever that in its immediate vicinity it is aiming for dominance.

Until recently – really, until Abe took over – the rise of China meant that America was faced with a potentially major dilemma. The primary targets of Chinese expansionism, are Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, to the protection of all of which America is committed by treaties. This fact lay behind the Obama Administration’s “pivot” toward East Asia, at the expense of the Middle East and south-west Asia. But Abe’s policies – notably the acquisition/ annexation last year of a group of islets in the East China Sea that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese the Diaoyu – have propelled the countries onto a collision course.

The Chinese are as engaged to this seemingly inevitable clash as the Japanese, as they recently proved by announcing an ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone) covering most of the east and South China Seas and overlapping with existing ADIZs of Japan and South Korea. Two weeks ago, an American aircraft carrier and a Chinese naval vessel almost collided; who was in the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depends entirely on whose side you are on.

Chinese (and some Western) analysts say that Abe is using nationalism as a means of diverting attention from Japan’s looming economic disaster. Japanese analysts claim the Chinese leadership has the same motivation. The only certainty is that everyone is escalating the tension and a military incident seems inevitable. What happens then is anyone’s guess.

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