Here's What Must Change to Keep Asia's Rise Peaceful

August 16, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: ChinaXi JinpingConflictTaiwanHong KongCoronavirus

Here's What Must Change to Keep Asia's Rise Peaceful

The biggest risk of conflict in the twenty-first century stems from not settling the conflicts of the twentieth century. Can Asians embrace a cartographic pragmatism similar to what they have achieved in the economic and social spheres?

North Korea

North Korea presents the most salient case of Asian powers signaling their own approaches to resolving long-standing disputes. One reason the Korean Peninsula has so drastically escalated into such a dangerous flashpoint over the past seven decades is that the Korean War itself was never formally ended in 1953. The Six-Party Talks, which went on for two decades, served as confidence-building measures but not a forum for conflict settlement. Despite the recent summits between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, North Korea continues its tactical threats such as launching missiles into the Sea of Japan and blowing up the joint Kaesong industrial cooperation complex on their border. As of now, the situation is once again at high alert.

What is needed is a clearer sequencing of three major priorities: Declaring a formal end to the Korean War, reunifying the two Koreas, and denuclearizing the peninsula. While the lifting of American sanctions is contingent on denuclearization, China, South Korea, and Russia accept that Kim will not denuclearize prior to the other steps being completed. Across the DMZ, views differ on whether the Korean War can be formally ended absent reunification. A phased process is imaginable whereby the two sides agree to formally end hostilities and recognize each other’s statehood, then proceed incrementally towards reunification in areas such as the economy and governance, after which the gradual deepening of cooperation across military commands can lead to agreement on nuclear status. Such an approach would, at a minimum, substantially de-escalate the current situation while also paving the way for North Korea to be constructively absorbed into the region.

South China Sea

While the collection of uninhabited islands and maritime features known as the Spratly and Paracel Islands are claimed variously by five littoral states, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines are the main disputants. Like the Senkaku/Diaoyu or Kuril, the Spratlys and Paracels are not in themselves valuable. However, sovereignty over them entails both strategic positioning in the South China Sea as well as the extension of exclusive economic zones for exploration of an estimated 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas. In recent years, China has promulgated both an expansive claim to effectively the entire Sea through its nine-dashed line as well as conducted extensive land reclamation and construction of military fortifications on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and other formations.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines’ de jure ownership over the Spratly Islands, denying China any legal basis for its claims. In practice, however, China’s physical occupation of most of the islands represents its unshakeable de facto control over them. The Philippines itself lacks the military strength to oust China’s naval positions and forces, and while U.S. FONOPs have been welcomed by littoral states (and even joined by European allies), the United States has been careful not to present itself as a tripwire.

In 2019, Xi Jinping offered Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte the possibility of joint oil and gas exploration in the disputed waters, with 60 percent of the profits going to the Philippines in exchange for the latter giving up on its claims to islands China has already seized. If the Philippines accepts, it may also insist on maintaining control over those islands on which it already has populations or ongoing commercial activities. While no doubt unfair from a legal standpoint, such a deal would be a recognition of reality while opening up a new and mutually beneficial chapter in Sino-Philippines commercial relations and a marked contribution to calming the waters.

Whereas Chinese coercive diplomacy has been effective against the Philippines, it is far less so against Vietnam. Vietnam is far more militarily capable than the Philippines, and also has a history of bellicosity with China. At the same time, Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation and PetroVietnam conducted nearly a decade of joint energy exploration under the Gulf of Tonkin before recently abandoning the effort. Along the way, China continued to establish fortifications on a number of the disputed Paracel Islands—and recently designated Xisha and Zhongsha Islands as official districts—and has intimidated Vietnam into cancelling energy contracts with some foreign companies. America’s Exxon and Russia’s Rosneft remain active, however, and China has not yet protested. The more these energy giants extract with their Vietnamese partners, the more China will have to accept the de facto (and de jure) weakness of its nine-dash line claims that it could not enforce against powerful adversaries.

Furthermore, as the Quad countries cooperate to boost the naval capacity of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, where Chinese fishing vessels have regularly encroached in the Natuna Sea, China may well accept the status quo rather than fight a three (or more) front war in the name of hegemony over the sea’s full expanse. The conditions are, therefore, propitious for China to recognize others’ sovereignty over their existing possessions while seeking inclusion in lucrative exploration and extraction opportunities. In exchange for acceptance of China’s de facto island possessions, China would forfeit claims to exclusive sovereignty over international waters and aerial zones. Settlement now is better than uncertainty and uncontrolled escalation later. 


China and India, Asia’s largest and most populous states, have two significant outstanding territorial disputes, both in forbiddingly mountainous geographies. The 1914 Simla Convention signed between British India and Tibet demarcated the McMahon Line which accorded what was known as the North East Frontier Agency to India, who designated it Arunachal Pradesh. China rejected this agreement, and, after the Tibetan uprising of 1959 that witnessed the Dalai Lama flee to India, the two countries fought a war in 1962 both along the McMahon Line as well as in the Aksai Chin region (which India claims is part of Ladakh, and China designates as part of Xinjiang).

Despite dozens of high-level meetings and sharing of maps, both sectors have witnessed troubling escalations in recent years. For example, the opening of the Nathu La pass in eastern Sikkim in 2006 for trade and pilgrims did not prevent the 2017 stand-off in the Doklam Plateau tri-border region with Bhutan. Unlike in 1962, the Doklam altercation did not result in victory for China, but rather a stalemate from which China withdrew its forces. More recently, China’s intrusion beyond the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh involved several dozen Indian casualties and significantly inflamed passions, especially on the Indian side. Even though China established new fortifications several kilometers insides India’s previously claimed territory, once again there is a stalemate. The situational parity achieved in the Himalayas has created an opportunity for Asia’s two greatest powers—in both Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin—to turn de facto realities into de jure settlements. The recognition that each is powerful at home but cannot win decisively abroad is a powerful alignment of the stars.


The unresolved status of the princely state of Kashmir at the time of the 1947 partition of South Asia has also been the direct or proximate cause of three major wars and a hot stand-off in 2001 between post-colonial cousins India and Pakistan. Much as in the eastern Himalayas, codifying de facto circumstances into de jure settlements is a sensible approach to the Kashmir conundrum. This is also the fait accompli India has engendered through its removal of special status for Kashmir in August 2019. By asserting direct rule over Kashmir, India rendered moot Kashmiri hopes of greater autonomy (or independence) as well as Pakistan’s hopes to unite all Kashmiri Muslims under Pakistan’s flag. At the same time, India has also implicitly acknowledged that it will not be able to reclaim Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, especially given China’s firm backing of Pakistan and extensive infrastructure projects there. Despite the fiery rhetoric and recent shelling across the Indo-Pak border, it seems only logical that the next step should be to convert the Line of Control in Kashmir into a de jure border.

MILITARY CONFLICT, whether swift or protracted, could certainly occur in any of the aforementioned situations. The result would need to be ratified by an agreement to end the hostilities and a treaty to recognize the new borders. The settlement may not be considered fair by all sides, but it would be a modern rather than colonial settlement, and one determined by Asians among themselves. They have only themselves to blame for the outcome.

Despite Asia’s range of conflictual fault lines, the process of intensifying interactions—even frictions—also contributes to the formation of a nascent strategic culture. Strategic culture generally refers to the preferences that emerge from a nation’s own history and thought. China’s Great Wall serves as lasting evidence of its fear of nomadic invasions. The Tang Dynasty’s defeat by the Abbasid-Tibetan coalition at the Battle of Talas in 751 ad reminds China not to over-stretch and invite counter-coalitions. Centuries of internecine conflict with the kingdoms of Vietnam and Korea warn China about the perils of protracted conflict.

But centuries of shared experience have laid the foundation for an emergent regional strategic culture as well. For example, the ancient Silk Roads that privileged commercial and cultural exchange over military rivalries animate today’s resurrection of trade networks despite unresolved border disputes. Consider how India has boycotted China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summits over its projects in Pakistan but is the second-largest shareholder in the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the largest recipient of its loans. This background is essential to understanding why and how China has responded to pushback to the BRI. As countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, and Myanmar have axed projects and renegotiated debts, China has rolled with the punches rather than forcing the issue. All of these precedents are contributors to a common Asian outlook on the world even as rivalries persist. The more Asians invest in such regional accommodation, the more an Asian strategic culture will move from aspiration to reality. In time, an “Asian Security Conference” could arise, an enlarged and more institutionalized Security Council-like version of the ASEAN Regional Forum.