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. Secondly, peace in Asia has been kept in good measure by the continued U.S. military presence since World War II. There have been terrible localized conflicts, of course, but nothing approaching a systemic conflagration like the 1940s. Today, such a conflict would be far more bloody, and it is unclear if the American military, already stretched too thin by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, could contain the crisis. Nor is it clear that the American people, worn out from war and economic distress, would be willing to shed even more blood and treasure for lands across the ocean.
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.
Here are some things America, its allies, and all interested nations in Asia can do to mitigate the possibility of the worst happening. The United States will have an opportunity to arrange a meeting of the region's top leaders on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Singapore later this year. There, President Obama might express his determination to intervene at the first sign of possible conflict -- even if that means putting U.S. forces in between ships aiming their guns at each other. President Obama might also establish an Asia crisis ad hoc committee in Washington, at the National Security Council, to keep tabs on possible flare-ups. This could be replicated in the region by an ad hoc mechanism tied to the ASEAN secretariat that would allow for immediate discussions between parties in confrontation. Working with Japan, Australia, and China, the United States can also establish clear procedures to limit humanitarian crises that erupt from internal instability in Asian countries. Perhaps most important, Washington must get clear assurances from its allies that they will stand with us should hostilities erupt and that any aggressor will be met with a united front.
None of this may be needed. Decades of economic integration and political discussion have made Asia a far more peaceful place. But war, like politics, is local. The pain being felt in Asian countries, their sense of national honor, and fears about their future, may coalesce into a toxic brew. Without preparation now, the world may be paying the price for years to come.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.