A maritime Balkans: East Asia is a tinderbox on water
Complicating matters, East Asia increasingly finds itself being pulled in radically different directions. On the one hand, the forces of globalization are bringing its peoples, economies, and countries closer together than at any other time in history, as reflected in intraregional trade, which is now approaching 60 percent of total East Asian trade. On the other hand, the forces of primitive, almost atavistic nationalisms are at the same time threatening to pull the region apart. As a result, the idea of armed conflict, which seems contrary to every element of rational self-interest for any nation-state enjoying the benefits of such unprecedented regional economic dynamism, has now become a terrifying, almost normal part of the regional conversation, driven by recent territorial disputes, but animated by deep-rooted cultural and historical resentments. Contemporary East Asia is a tale of these two very different worlds.
The most worrying fault lines run between China and Japan, and between China and Vietnam. In September 2012, the Japanese government purchased from a private owner three islands in the Senkakus, a small chain of islands claimed by both countries (the Chinese call the islands the Diaoyu). This caused China to conclude that Japan, which had exercised de facto administrative control over the islands for most of the last century, was now moving toward a more de jure exercise of sovereignty. In response, Beijing launched a series of what it called “combination punches”: economic retaliation, the dispatch of Chinese maritime patrol vessels to the disputed areas, joint combat drills among the branches of its military, and widespread, occasionally violent public protests against Japanese diplomatic and commercial targets across China. As a result, Japanese exports to China contracted rapidly in the fourth quarter of 2012, and because Japan had already become China’s largest trading partner, sliding exports alone are likely to be a significant contributive factor in what is projected to be a large contraction in overall Japanese economic growth in the same period.