The Spy Who Told Me: Asia Is Where the Real Trouble Is At - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A Chinese Honor Guard standing in formation in Beijing.
SourceDavid Gray/Corbis


Because while we were all paying attention to the Islamic State group, major issues were heating up in Asia.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Remember Asia? It’d be easy to forget that part of the world, given the degree to which the world has had to focus on the Middle East for months. But starting two years ago, the Obama administration  began focusing on the Asia “pivot” or “rebalance,” an initiative to shift  America’s foreign policy focus to the East, where U.S. longer-term interests — economically, militarily and politically speaking — are tightly bound up.

And parts of that crucially important region seem increasingly volatile — and potentially dangerous.

Despite the Middle East’s persistent high boil, Russia’s aggression in Europe and the Afghanistan drawdown, we still have to carve out quality time for Asia.

Our treaty relationships with Japan and the Philippines could pull the U.S. into Asian conflicts.

Why? First, simply because many of our most important relationships are there. Obviously, there is China, which is on the way to becoming the world’s largest economy and is already the largest importer of oil. There is Japan, a defense treaty ally with the world’s third-largest economy. And there are many other countries woven into the increasingly dynamic Asian economy — South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines (to which we are also bound by a defense treaty).

Tensions have been rising in Asia for several years.  And our treaty relationships with Japan and the Philippines could pull us into Asian conflicts.

The tensions have many causes; the overarching one is the region’s struggle to come to terms with China’s rising power. This has taken its most tangible form in hotly contested competing sovereignty claims over islands and rock formations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. At least seven Asian nations are quarreling over who owns what, and China stands in the middle of all of these disputes.

Philippino marines riding in a rubber raft towards the Spratly Islands.

Members of the Philippine marines conduct a mission on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

Source Erik de Castro/Corbis

Even though most of the disputed areas, mainly the South China Sea’s Paracel and Spratly islands, are barely inhabited, they are all strategically significant — including for the United States. Fifty percent of the world’s tanker trade now goes through the South China Sea, for example — five times the Panama Canal’s traffic and three times that of Suez. It’s hard to know the oceanic energy reserves confidently, but the World Bank estimates 7 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — that’s not inconsequential for energy-hungry China.

The international law governing any of this is complicated and in dispute, but China, by staking a  claim on some of these outcroppings, is asserting its sovereignty over about 90 percent of the South China Sea — a claim rejected by nearly all the surrounding countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. China has gone so far as to haul enormous amounts of sand and rock to one of the smaller outcroppings in order to build it into a more respectable island, sparking rumors that Beijing wants to put a military landing strip there.

Countries have played classic games of “chicken,” risking military miscalculation.

Further north in the East China Sea, China and Japan have been circling each other over another small island chain called the Senkaku (or Diaoyu by China). Japan owns these, but China interprets the tortured history of possession over the last century to dispute Japan’s claim. Oceanic oil reserves estimates here are not well-established and vary wildly from millions to trillions of barrels. China’s assertion of exclusive air rights over the islands last year (the Air Defense Identification Zone), a move strongly opposed by Japan and the United States, sharply raised the stakes.

The issues are anything but academic. Over the last four years in particular, countries have played classic games of “chicken” with aircraft and vessels, risking military miscalculation: a Chinese fishing boat ramming a Japanese patrol boat in 2010, various near collisions in 2012, a Chinese vessel blocking a U.S. military vessel in international waters in 2013, a Chinese naval vessel locking its fire control radar onto a Japanese frigate last year. And the latest: This year a Chinese jet and a Japanese prop plane came within 100 feet of crashing into each other over the Senkaku.

An aerial shot of the Senkaku Islands in Japan

Minamikojima (foreground), Kitakojima (middle) and Uotsurijima (background) of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain

Source Getty

And there are few mechanisms for defusing a crisis. Only China and Vietnam have a “hotline”; none exists between China and Japan. Normal military-to-military communications are neither well-developed nor exercised. The United States could be drawn in because treaties with the Philippines and Japan oblige us to defend them in hostilities, an obligation President Barack Obama reaffirmed during his Asian trip in April  (while stressing he was not drawing “red lines” for China and strongly encouraging negotiated settlements).

The world these days is giving us one surprise after another.

Obama’s trip was also intended, in part, to reaffirm that the United States is serious about “rebalancing” to Asia. So far, most of our steps have been military-related. Our last three secretaries of defense have visited China, and this year saw the first visit to Vietnam by the U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman. The U.S. is committed to putting 60 percent of its Air Force and Navy in the Pacific by 2020. And the U.S. is reaching out to China, which  this year participated for the first time in the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercise conducted by the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the world’s largest naval exercise. 

What could help calm things down in the disputed areas? More direct communication among the region’s militaries and, most urgently, a legally binding code of conduct in these troubled seas. Missing in Asia, however, is a strong regional security organization, like NATO in Europe, to hammer this out and enforce it. The closest thing is the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has so far been unable to agree on such a code. 

And to top it all off, China, which makes agreements with ASEAN but is not a member, insists on dealing bilaterally with each of the claimant countries rather than forming a multilateral agreement. And Congress’ failure so far to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) denies the U.S. moral high ground in pushing the claimants toward international legal solutions.

The bottom line: Despite the absence of screaming headlines, keep looking East. The world these days is giving us one surprise after another, and conditions in Asia’s disputed areas easily qualify them for top-tier status among the world’s current danger spots. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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