Preventing the worst case scenario in Asia.
11:00 PM, Feb 5, 2009 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
AS THEY DEAL WITH a collapsing world economy, policymakers in Washington and around the globe must not forget that when a depression strikes, war can follow. Nowhere is this truer than in Asia, the most heavily armed region on earth and riven with ancient hatreds and territorial rivalries. Collapsing trade flows can lead to political tension, nationalist outbursts, growing distrust, and ultimately, military miscalculation. The result would be disaster on top of an already dire situation.
No one should think that Asia is on the verge of conflict. But it is also important to remember what has helped keep the peace in this region for so long. Phenomenal growth rates in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and elsewhere since the 1960s have naturally turned national attention inward, to development and stability. This has gradually led to increased political confidence, diplomatic initiatives, and in many nations the move toward more democratic systems. America has directly benefited as well, and not merely from years of lower consumer prices, but also from the general conditions of peace in Asia.
Yet policymakers need to remember that even during these decades of growth, moments of economic shock, such as the 1973 Oil Crisis, led to instability and bursts of terrorist activity in Japan, while the uneven pace of growth in China has led to tens of thousands of armed clashes in the poor interior of the country.
Now imagine such instability multiplied region-wide. The economic collapse Japan is facing, and China's potential slowdown, dwarfs any previous economic troubles, including the 1998 Asian Currency Crisis. Newly urbanized workers rioting for jobs or living wages, conflict over natural resources, further saber-rattling from North Korea, all can take on lives of their own. This is the nightmare of governments in the region, and particularly of democracies from newer ones like Thailand and Mongolia to established states like Japan and South Korea. How will overburdened political leaders react to internal unrest? What happens if Chinese shopkeepers in Indonesia are attacked, or a Japanese naval ship collides with a Korean fishing vessel? Quite simply, Asia's political infrastructure may not be strong enough to resist the slide towards confrontation and conflict.
This would be a political and humanitarian disaster turning the clock back decades in Asia. It would almost certainly drag America in at some point, as well. First of all, we have alliance responsibilities to Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines should any of them come under armed attack. Failure on our part to live up to those responsibilities could mean the end of America's credibility in Asia.
The result could be a historic changing of the geopolitical map in the world's most populous region. Perhaps China would emerge as the undisputed hegemon. Possibly democracies like Japan and South Korea would link up to oppose any aggressor. India might decide it could move into the vacuum. All of this is guess-work, of course, but it has happened repeatedly throughout history. There is no reason to believe we are immune from the same types of miscalculation and greed that have destroyed international systems in the past.