Without question, 2013 was a jam-packed year for national security, defense and foreign policy watchers in the Asia-Pacific. What will 2014 bring? Look for next year’s major flashpoints to include mostly familiar themes from the last few years – and almost all include China, one way or another. Below are my top four flashpoints to watch out for in 2014, in ascending order. Think I missed something? Please place your comments below!
4. North Korea Once Again Sparks Tensions: Next year offers countless possibilities for Pyongyang to raise tensions in Northeast Asia – and all are disturbing. From another nuclear or missile test, some sort of aggressive act that sparks a regional crisis (like another ROKS Cheonan incident, or worse) or just an outright collapse, North Korea always has the potential to plunge Northeast Asia and the wider region into a state of chaos. Last year, the actions of Kim Jung-un left me with many sleepless nights as editor of these pages. One can only hope in 2014 that Pyongyang will stick to filling the news cycle with trips by Dennis Rodman – but don’t count on it.
3. U.S.-China Tensions Continue to Grow: The rise of China is certainly a global story with worldwide ramifications. In 2014, look for China’s rise to take a new twist, sparking greater competitive tensions with the United States that are much more out in the open than in years past. From more incidents at sea like the near collision with the USS Cowpens, trade disputes and new trade blocs (perhaps the TTP?), allegations of more spying but from both sides (calling Edward Snowden?), there is no easier prediction to make than that 2014 will not be an easy one for U.S.-China ties. While China talks of creating a new type of great power relations and seeking win-win ties and U.S. President Barack Obama is eager to foster a peaceful relationship, tensions seem to be too great to allow for wishful thinking.
My prediction for 2014 when it comes to Washington and Beijing: Look for the tone of this relationship to get much more competitive, tense, and filled with franks statements of intent from both sides, who will be less eager to please and more confrontational.
2. Drama in the South China Sea: It seems tensions here are never ending. Look for next year to continue a familiar pattern. Considering the number of claimants to the various islands, reefs, inlets and rocks along with the natural resources that are thought to lie beneath them, 2014 should provide plenty of stressful headlines. Look for Beijing to continue to press its claims through what fellow Diplomat author James Holmes calls “Small Stick Diplomacy,” but with a stick that might get a little bit bigger. With Beijing recently deploying its new, but non-functional, aircraft carrier to the region for maneuvers after declaring a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, look for China to keep the pressure on in areas like Second Thomas Shoal.
1. Drama in the East China Sea: Forget Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear program or America’s drawdown in Afghanistan – there is no more important international hotspot in the world today than in the East China Sea, where tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are ongoing. Given that the world’s second and third largest economies are locked into a cycle of increasing tensions that could conceivably draw in the U.S., the stakes could not be any higher. With China continuing to probe the area with naval and air assets and declaring an ADIZ over the area, while Japan seeks to enhance its armed forces with a focus on defending this disputed area, a deadly witches brew seems to be taking shape. Could naval and air assets come close enough that an incident occurs? What happens then? In 2014, we might just find out.