Monday, January 03, 2011

Asia, an Oasis of Peace?

In late December Foreign Policy magazine published a slide show listing of “Next Year’s Wars” laying out the conflicts that it sees coming in 2011. The magazine listed 16 possible trouble spots, seven in Africa, five in Central and South America and four in the Middle East – none in Asia.

How is that again? Has Asia suddenly become an oasis of peace? Are there no potential conflicts in the region to worry about? Indeed, in an earlier listing published in the February issue called “Planet Wars” the magazine had a more expanded list of 33 conflicts around the globe, a half dozen or so in the region.

In some ways it is true that peace has broken out in Asia. In the past couple years the long Sri Lankan civil war came to a bloody conclusion, but a conclusion nonetheless. Mediation pushed along by a tsunami helped to finally end the insurgency in Indonesia’s province of Aceh, both showing that “intractable” conflicts sometimes are tractable.

Some of the conflicts in Asia are old stories, very old stories. The communist New People’s Army has been waging an insurgency on the northern island of Luzon for more than 50 years. Of similar vintage are the various separatist movements and wars in Myanmar. India has a deadly Maoist insurgency still running.

There is no reason to believe that 2011 will alter this picture very much. It is unlikely that the Philippines or Myanmar will score any significant victories in the coming year; it is equally unlikely that any of these movements will threaten to bring down the current regimes. That may be why they are not on FP list.

But while these local conflicts mainly concern the host countries, they do have some geopolitical implications. The communist insurgency may not impact any but the Philippines, but this year Manila turned to China for the first time for military aid, which might be considered a point for China in its rivalry with the U.S. for influence in Southeast Asia.

Similarly, as separatist movements peter out in Indonesia (save for a low key insurgency in Papua), memories of the atrocities that the army committed in putting them are fading. This means that Indonesia has become a more acceptable partner for the U.S in balancing against China expansion. The fact that it is a democracy now helps too.

It is not impossible that civil war could break out in Thailand this year. Last year’s bloody crackdown on “red shirt” demonstrators in Bangkok could be a curtain riser for even bloodier confrontation this year. Elections will likely be held this year. What happens if the “red shirt” faction regains a majority in parliament? Will the “yellow shirts” gracefully accept the verdict of the voters? They haven’t in the past.

Adding to this is one eventuality that nobody wants to think about, the royal succession. King Bhumibol, now 83, is living more or less permanently in a Bangkok hospital. He could die this year, and the succession is not so clear cut as it is in other monarchies. There could be rival claimants, especially as the Crown Prince is unpopular.

For a moment after the murderous shelling of a South Korean island off the coast of North Korea in November one might have thought that the two Koreas were on the verge of Korean War II. At year’s end, however, Pyongyang had ramped down the strident rhetoric.

So was FP wise to exclude the Koreas from its list of Next Year’s Wars? Perhaps. There is always a considerable amount of bluffing on the peninsula. North Korea has been threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” for so long that the words, as opposed to the reality of massed artillery across the border, no longer raise many fears.

If it is impossible to predict what might take place this year with the two Koreas, one can forecast with almost absolute certainty that there will be one or more clashes in the East and South China Seas. There are too many big power interests in this region to predict any serious warfare breaking out, but the potential for “incidents” is very high.

The East China Sea is an area where the Chinese, American and Japanese navies grind together, sometimes literally as in the case last September when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel. The Chinese are reinforcing their paramilitary fishery patrol boats around disputed islands and increasing the number of military over flights along the periphery, so the potential for more such incidents is very high.

These incidents may not develop into full scale clashes much less all out war, but they do involve considerable diplomatic wear and tear. Rookie Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has never really recovered politically from the island dispute, which took place when he was fighting for his political life in a party election. It also shows that “incidents” don’t happen at convenient times.


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