At any given time, there are dozens of hotspots around the world where regional conflicts or outright wars are fermenting. Most times these potential conflicts are local or regional in scope. There are four areas at the moment though that, if things a serious turn, could erupt into large scale – possibly global – war. The one that is currently grabbing headlines is the deteriorating situation between Russia and the Ukraine. NATO has begun posturing and maneuvering troops to hopefully deter the manifestly expansionist bent shown by Russia under Putin’s leadership. There are talks of “military exercises” in Poland (and possibly Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Real, old school, Cold War sabre rattling. The problem with cold wars is they can become hot all to easily despite how the nearly forty year long Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. ended with the primarily financially driven collapse of the Soviet Union. On more than on occasion, that long running tension nearly erupted into global thermonuclear war. The possibility of a new cold war or (worse) an open war between NATO and Russia is fraught with danger that some of the younger generations never grew up with. Children of the last part of the 20th Century grew up with thermonuclear war being an abstraction from the past at best or ignorant of the possibility at worst. No sane person would use nuclear weapons? Right? Having been in college when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall was reduced to ruble, I remember all to well growing up in a time where the specter of nuclear war hovered over everything. A pale ghost threatening death by fire and radiation that could come with little or no warning. The one consolation of growing up in a known first strike zone was I knew that if it happened, I’d be one of the lucky ones gone in a flash of gamma rays and a shockwave so sudden and fierce I’d barely have time to recognize what had happened if at all. I pitied the survivors. As a follower of international relations, I have to say as of late I’m starting to hear those old dogs of war barking. They may even be growling. Although the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set the Doomsday Clock to five minutes to midnight as of January 14, 2014, one has to wonder if this is an accurate estimate given this recent turn of events. Is it accurate given other global concerns? The Ukrainian situation is not the only theater where if the dogs are loosed they come with a nuclear threat. Are we on the brink of a more dangerous time? Has the nuclear boogeyman returned? Did he ever go away?
Ukraine may be a game of brinksmanship, but considering Russia’s economic interests in both maintaining control over their natural gas pipelines to Europe and having access to warm water ports, Putin has incentive to not back down. The major political parties of Ukraine all endorse a closer relationship with Europe and a move toward eventually joining the European Union. While Ukraine is not a member of the NATO military alliance, they have expressed interest in joining it as well, a plan Russia flummoxed by installing a man widely considered to be their puppet, Viktor Yanukovych, as President. This dog could bite if Russia decides to take up her old expansionist policies. Is this likely? I really doubt given the state of their domestic politics and economy that Russia would want an open war with NATO and Putin may be many things psychologically speaking but so far irrational hasn’t been one of them. That, of course, does not mean this game of brinksmanship – like all such games – doesn’t come with the inherent risk of escalation if things go sideways for any of the parties involved. “Want” and “stuff happened” is divided by a razor thin line.
Add to this the new dimension in proxy wars – international terrorism. The utter disaster that is the Middle East has only been further complicated by the U.S. actions of the last decade. Our misplaced alliances and letting corporate petroleum interests dictate our foreign policy to the point we invaded Iraq – a country that did not attack us on 9/11 – sending the region into further destabilization by removing the only non-theocratic secular bulwark against the Iranian extremists and the dreams of a modern Saudi Caliphate from the region. This move not only destabilized the region, it has served to act as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups bent on damaging the West in any way they can manage. The possibility of a broken arrow finding its way into a terrorist group’s quiver from the vast Russian arsenal of nuclear warheads is a looming concern given several high profile terrorist organizations have expressed interest in acquiring either warheads or fissionable material. It has been argued that the plausible deniability of funding terrorist groups like the Saudis funded (and manned) the al-Quada operations of 9/11 creates a greater likelihood of some kind of extreme attack – be it nuclear or biological – by proxy. Consider to that efforts in the region to reign in Iran’s nuclear program have recently been thwarted by our nominal ally Israel and the warhawks of Netanyahu’s Likud Party perpetual efforts to avoid coming to a peaceful solution over the Palestinians. Peace between Israel and recognition of the Palestinian state would go a long way toward removing the impetus for Iran’s desire to become a nuclear power and bring some much needed stability to the region. It is bad enough that Israel “has/doesn’t have” nuclear weapons of their own – that the U.S. “did/didn’t” give them – but the Likhud insists on foreign and domestic policy which keeps tensions in the region high and also furthers the recruitment of terrorists. And lo, a second ghostly dog named nuclear terrorism.
Consider too the continued military action of the U.S. in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. That in itself not only has served to keep regional tensions high, it isn’t adding any stability to what was an ongoing potential conflict at the time of our misadventures in the region: the Kashmiri border dispute between Pakistan and India, both of whom have nuclear weapons. This dispute has fallen from the mainstream media spotlight in the U.S., but it is still an ongoing tension between two heavily nuclear armed nation-states. It has been since 1947. Since then, several wars and skirmishes have occurred between Pakistan and India over the the region. A political solution there seems as remote as a political solution for the Israeli/Palestinian problem. Although this bad dog may be on the porch right now it can still bite.
This brings us to a situation also garnering little coverage in the U.S. although it is getting more than the Kashmir situation: China and Japan and the dispute over islands in the East and South China Seas. This is surprising in many ways because this hotspot is in many ways a more imminent danger than the Middle East. While doing research, I came across a summary of events in this region that is excellent so instead of reinventing the wheel here it is in the words of Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College.
“The possibility of an Iranian crisis remains in the spotlight because of the obvious risk of disorder in the Greater Middle East and its threat to global oil production and shipping. A crisis in the East or South China Seas (essentially, western extensions of the Pacific Ocean) would, however, pose a greater peril because of the possibility of a U.S.-China military confrontation and the threat to Asian economic stability.
The United States is bound by treaty to come to the assistance of Japan or the Philippines if either country is attacked by a third party, so any armed clash between Chinese and Japanese or Filipino forces could trigger American military intervention. With so much of the world’s trade focused on Asia, and the American, Chinese, and Japanese economies tied so closely together in ways too essential to ignore, a clash of almost any sort in these vital waterways might paralyze international commerce and trigger a global recession (or worse).
All of this should be painfully obvious and so rule out such a possibility — and yet the likelihood of such a clash occurring has been on the rise in recent months, as China and its neighbors continue to ratchet up the bellicosity of their statements and bolster their military forces in the contested areas. Washington’s continuing statements about its ongoing plans for a “pivot” to, or “rebalancing” of, its forces in the Pacific have only fueled Chinese intransigence and intensified a rising sense of crisis in the region. Leaders on all sides continue to affirm their country’s inviolable rights to the contested islands and vow to use any means necessary to resist encroachment by rival claimants. In the meantime, China has increased the frequency and scale of its naval maneuvers in waters claimed by Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, further enflaming tensions in the region.
Ostensibly, these disputes revolve around the question of who owns a constellation of largely uninhabited atolls and islets claimed by a variety of nations. In the East China Sea, the islands in contention are called the Diaoyus by China and the Senkakus by Japan. At present, they are administered by Japan, but both countries claim sovereignty over them. In the South China Sea, several island groups are in contention, including the Spratly chain and the Paracel Islands (known in China as the Nansha and Xisha Islands, respectively). China claims all of these islets, while Vietnam claims some of the Spratlys and Paracels. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines also claim some of the Spratlys.
Far more is, of course, at stake than just the ownership of a few uninhabited islets. The seabeds surrounding them are believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Ownership of the islands would naturally confer ownership of the reserves — something all of these countries desperately desire. Powerful forces of nationalism are also at work: with rising popular fervor, the Chinese believe that the islands are part of their national territory and any other claims represent a direct assault on China’s sovereign rights; the fact that Japan — China’s brutal invader and occupier during World War II — is a rival claimant to some of them only adds a powerful tinge of victimhood to Chinese nationalism and intransigence on the issue. By the same token, the Japanese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos, already feeling threatened by China’s growing wealth and power, believe no less firmly that not bending on the island disputes is an essential expression of their nationhood.
Long ongoing, these disputes have escalated recently. In May 2011, for instance, the Vietnamese reported that Chinese warships were harassing oil-exploration vessels operated by the state-owned energy company PetroVietnam in the South China Sea. In two instances, Vietnamese authorities claimed, cables attached to underwater survey equipment were purposely slashed. In April 2012, armed Chinese marine surveillance ships blocked efforts by Filipino vessels to inspect Chinese boats suspected of illegally fishing off Scarborough Shoal, an islet in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.
The East China Sea has similarly witnessed tense encounters of late. Last September, for example, Japanese authorities arrested 14 Chinese citizens who had attempted to land on one of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to press their country’s claims, provoking widespread anti-Japanese protests across China and a series of naval show-of-force operations by both sides in the disputed waters.
Regional diplomacy, that classic way of settling disputes in a peaceful manner, has been under growing strain recently thanks to these maritime disputes and the accompanying military encounters. In July 2012, at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asian leaders were unable to agree on a final communiqué, no matter how anodyne — the first time that had happened in the organization’s 46-year history. Reportedly, consensus on a final document was thwarted when Cambodia, a close ally of China’s, refused to endorse compromise language on a proposed “code of conduct” for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Two months later, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing in an attempt to promote negotiations on the disputes, she was reviled in the Chinese press, while officials there refused to cede any ground at all.
As 2012 ended and the New Year began, the situation only deteriorated. On December 1st, officials in Hainan Province, which administers the Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, announced a new policy for 2013: Chinese warships would now be empowered to stop, search, or simply repel foreign ships that entered the claimed waters and were suspected of conducting illegal activities ranging, assumedly, from fishing to oil drilling. This move coincided with an increase in the size and frequency of Chinese naval deployments in the disputed areas.
On December 13th, the Japanese military scrambled F-15 fighter jets when a Chinese marine surveillance plane flew into airspace near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Another worrisome incident occurred on January 8th, when four Chinese surveillance ships entered Japanese-controlled waters around those islands for 13 hours. Two days later, Japanese fighter jets were again scrambled when a Chinese surveillance plane returned to the islands. Chinese fighters then came in pursuit, the first time supersonic jets from both sides flew over the disputed area. The Chinese clearly have little intention of backing down, having indicated that they will increase their air and naval deployments in the area, just as the Japanese are doing.”
– Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Next War? @ Tomgram.com
The potential threat of drawing the U.S. into a region wide conflict with China in defense of either Japan or the Philippines cannot be underestimated. Although the Chinese posses a substantively smaller nuclear arsenal than the U.S., they still have one, not to mention enough manpower and a growing manufacturing base that could make open warfare with them no certain outcome. This is a bad dog that merits more attention.
Do these four dogs come before the Horsemen? Who can say. But the wildlife is restless. Tension abounds. Is five minutes to midnight an apt analogy or a gross underestimation of the current dangers in multiple theaters? Are we on the brink of open war that could lead to nuclear disaster or will these tensions dissipate into diplomacy?
What do you think?