The American “X factor” looms across all these scenarios. With moderates Rex Tillerson and H. R. McMaster ousted from President Trump’s inner circle, Asian powers are weary of the more hawkish duo of National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Asian leaders who want to guard against excessive American interference in their regional affairs—which is all Asians, even American allies such as Japan—would be well served to undertake serious dispute resolution processes. Now more than ever, Asians almost universally prefer solutions that reflect a vision of cross-border stability in the absence of artificial strategic crutches provided by foreign powers such as the United States.
Even parties negotiating from a position of strength should know better than to presume circumstances will always favor their present advantages. Due to the overwhelming power asymmetry between China and Taiwan, Beijing has shown signs of de-escalating—despite the election of a nationalist government in Taipei. But to China’s great annoyance, Donald Trump has stoked tensions with the “Taiwan Travel Act,” promoting official exchanges with the Republic of China and—perhaps more significantly—granting a license to sell advanced submarines to Taiwan. Then there is the Israel-Palestine dispute, where it would appear Israel holds all the cards given Arab disarray and Trump’s strong support for Netanyahu. But just recently Hamas has been able to set off another uprising in Gaza, and the long-term demographic trends of Arabs in Israel paint a worrying picture for the Israeli leadership.
Therefore, one cannot be glib about Asia’s conflict formations: they are never “frozen” but rather constantly corroding from within. Many of these disputes could quickly escalate, ricochet or spillover, sparking broader and more complex conflagrations from the Arabian Sea to Northeast Asia. Until they are formally settled, they are very much unsettled.
Few of today’s outstanding conflicts are likely to end on their own, even if some don’t pose existential risks to global stability. The island dispute between Moscow and Tokyo, for example, has not inhibited substantial Russo-Japanese trade, cooperation in developing Russia’s Far East infrastructure or even joint military exercises. But it has certainly prevented them from developing the deeper level of strategic trust needed to ensure East Asia remains multipolar—which is in both of their interests.
A multipolar world can be an unstable landscape of security dilemmas and proxy competitions à la Europe before World War I, or it can be a stable balance of power in which sufficient distance among poles and respect for their spheres of influence generates a dynamic equilibrium. If we want this kind of lasting global stability, we must permit technocrats to make the peace first.
Parag Khanna is a Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (2016) and the forthcoming Our Asian Future: Global Order in the 21st Century (2019).