Last year I argued that the risk of great power war was lower than at any time since the nineteenth century. So it remains, despite the elevation of tensions in the western Pacific these past couple of years, focused on Chinese territorial claims in the East and South China Seas which are causing disputes between that country and its neighbors, most prominent among them Japan, leading to a series of (thus far) non-violent incidents in the vicinity of Diaoyu/Senkaku/Tiaoyutai Islands. Given the U.S. presence in the region, and its alliance arrangements with various nations within it (particularly Japan and the Phillipines), bolstered by the highly publicized "reorientation" of the U.S.'s military posture toward the western Pacific, many have raised the risk of a larger conflict--hot or cold.
Nonetheless, the larger situation should be kept in perspective. The Soviet Union, in spite of its many weaknesses, at least appeared like a global military challenger. China has displayed no serious aspiration to be anything of the kind anytime soon, any dispassionate examination of its forces and posture making its regional orientation clear. China is also valued by the United States as trading partner and financier in a way that the Soviet Union never was, which has had a dampening influence on anti-China propaganda (as seen in the remake of Red Dawn, which lamely has North Korea invading the U.S.). And despite the difference in political systems between the U.S. and China, there is no real ideological clash, China not even pretending to be exporting an alternative, competing model. (Its statist capitalism is, in truth, just what every industrial power, the United States included, practiced in the past, and continue to practice today in varying ways, even as they advocate neoliberalism, and its pragmatism, not its ideology, prized in those developing countries into which its economic influence reaches.)
There is, in short, much more to bind the U.S. and China together, much less to push them apart than was the case with the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, while the significance of the ongoing territorial contests ought not to be overstated. The status of Taiwan is, unlike the status of Germany in the 1940s, a regional issue rather than a plausibly global one. The suspected mineral resources to which ownership of a few uninhabited rocks in the East and South China Seas currently an object of dispute might be a prize for an oil company, but are not so vast as to be crucial to the economic life of either of those nations, the second and third largest economies, and first and third largest industrial powers, on the entire planet (by contrast with the value of Persian Gulf oil fields for states like Iraq and Kuwait).
Yet, it is in the nature of international politics for states to blow minor issues (like possession of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine) up into matters of world-historical consequence. The justification of questionable procurement programs, the distraction of domestic audiences from bread-and-butter issues, the self-defeating obsession of political actors with maintaining their "credibility," and the sheer stupidity and irresponsibility of those who in a neverending refutation of leisure class, meritocratic and Social Darwinist pretensions, find their way to high office, have been more than enough to push the world over the edge of catastrophe.
All of these factors remain operative now, perhaps more than in most times. China faces the uncertainties surrounding a change of leadership in a political system which has long since lost its legitimacy (the name "Communist Party" increasingly seems an anachronism) amid slowing economic growth, a devastated ecosystem, feudal inequality and the unrest all this makes inevitable. Japan has had two decades of economic stagnation, and just witnessed the criminal irresponsibility which caused the Fukushima disaster. More recently, the unveiling of the AirSea doctrine has been such a public relations mess as to appall neoconservative fellow travelers like Jonathan Pollack and Thomas Barnett (Barnett pointedly calling it "The Military-Industrial Complex's Self-Serving Fantasy" in the title of an article he penned for Time magazine), making the questionable decision to "reorient" the U.S. armed forces toward the Pacific (when retrenchment seems called for) appear that much more provocative.
The result is that the repugnant jingoism of the political theater seen in the East China Sea during the past month ought not to be taken as a sign of the inevitability of World War III, or even a New Cold War, in that region--but it is a reminder that the dismissal of such a danger as phantasmic is dangerous.
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