For the last two decades, the Asia-Pacific has represented a positive story in geopolitics, at least compared to the chronic instability in the Middle East. There was an integration of economies on both a regional and global level, a rise in prosperity unprecedented in human history, and a relative absence of major conflicts either between nations or within them. This era of stability is ending, however. In the 21st century, this very same good news story has put the region on the geopolitical center stage, and not in a good way.
China has enjoyed a political, economic, and now military rise that Foreign Affairs magazine has said may be the “most important international relations story of the 21st century.” The problem is that no one knows how that story might end. Disputes with every one of its maritime neighbors over islands and sea rights are helping to fuel a regional arms race. But underlying these disputes are larger geopolitical questions centering on Beijing’s vision of emerging as the leading global power of the next 100 years, the American response, and whether this reordering will be one that remains only within the realm of politics and economics.
Henry Kissinger remarked in a 2012 essay that U.S.-China relations have long been “…heading for confrontation rather than cooperation.” This confrontation is purposeful, not careless. Even the “China Dream” now has the country becoming, in strategist Liu Ming Fu’s concept, “the most powerful country in the world” – a world that he defines as “post American.” This is not merely top-down thinking: The Chinese Communist Party is carefully encouraging a more nationalist Chinese public to become aligned with this ambition. According to one survey, more than 80 percent of those polled think China should return to its status as the world’s strongest power in both political and military terms. It is an alignment that combines historical longing and 21st century ambitions, nurtured by a Party leadership that has harmonized its strategy with popular priority. Indeed, the Party’s Global Times newspaper last September featured an editorial “As possibility of a Third World War Exists, China Needs To Be Prepared” by a professor at PLA Defense University who made the case as explicitly as possible: “Without large-scale military power, securing China’s overseas interests seems like an empty slogan.”
The risk is obvious: The once unthinkable is more thinkable by the day, a brewing Cold War between great powers, one that could even turn hot. The Pacific Ocean covers nearly a third of the Earth’s surface, making it a large canvas on which to paint a picture of the digital age’s first war between great powers. The potential locales could be the Taiwan Strait or an artificial islet in the South China Sea created by Chinese military construction teams. Or the spark for such a conflict may come halfway around the world, driven by China’s growing presence in strategically vital areas like the Middle East or Africa’s resource regions. If the parallel for today is the period before World War I, as Henry Kissinger worries, remember that there were numerous crises and standoffs between Great Britain, France, and Germany before 1914, with friction points from South Africa to Algeria to the Pacific. Yet it was an assassination in Sarajevo, at the other end of Europe from Berlin and London, which led both the world’s leaders and their publics to see logic in a war they once thought impossible in an age of globalization and progress.