Kevin Rudd: East Asia ... A Maritime Balkans of the 21st Century?

Kevin Rudd is the former prime minister and foreign minister of Australia.

These are no ordinary times in East Asia. With tensions rising from conflicting territorial claims in the East China and South China seas, the region increasingly resembles a 21st-century maritime redux of the Balkans a century ago -- a tinderbox on water. Nationalist sentiment is surging across the region, reducing the domestic political space for less confrontational approaches. Relations between China and Japan have now fallen to their lowest ebb since diplomatic normalization in 1972, significantly reducing bilateral trade and investment volumes and causing regional governments to monitor developments with growing alarm. Relations between China and Vietnam, and between China and the Philippines, have also deteriorated significantly, while key regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have become increasingly polarized. In security terms, the region is more brittle than at any time since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

In Beijing, current problems with Tokyo, Hanoi, and Manila are top of mind. They dominate both the official media and the social media, and the latter have become particularly vitriolic. They also dominate discussions between Chinese officials and foreign visitors. The relationship with Japan in particular is front and center in virtually every official conversation as Chinese interlocutors probe what they identify as a profound change in both the tenor of Japanese domestic politics and the centrality of China within the Japanese debate. Beijing does not desire armed conflict with Japan over territorial disputes, but nonetheless makes clear that it has its own red lines that cannot be crossed for its own domestic reasons, and that it is prepared for any contingency.

Like the Balkans a century ago, riven by overlapping alliances, loyalties, and hatreds, the strategic environment in East Asia is complex. At least six states or political entities are engaged in territorial disputes with China, three of which are close strategic partners of the United States. And there are multiple agencies involved from individual states: In China, for example, the International Crisis Group has calculated that eight different agencies are engaged in the South China Sea alone. Furthermore, these territorial claims -- and the minerals, energy, and marine resources at stake -- are vast. And while the United States remains mostly neutral, the intersection between the narrower interests of claimant states and the broader strategic competition between the United States and China is significant and not automatically containable...

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