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Four flashpoints to watch in 2014

Without question, 2013 was a jam-packed year for national security, defence and foreign-policy watchers in Asia-Pacific.

What will 2014 bring? Look for this year's major flashpoints to include mostly familiar themes from the last few years - and almost all include China, one way or another. Below are my top four flashpoints to watch out for this year, in ascending order.

4. North Korea brews trouble

The 12 months ahead offer countless possibilities for Pyongyang to raise tensions in Northeast Asia - and all are disturbing. From another nuclear or missile test, some sort of aggressive act that sparks a regional crisis (like another South Korea Cheonan incident, or worse) or just an outright collapse, North Korea always has the potential to plunge Northeast Asia and the wider region into a state of chaos. Last year, the actions of Kim Jung-un left me with many sleepless nights as an editor. One can only hope in 2014 that Pyongyang will stick to filling the news cycle with trips by Dennis Rodman - but don't count on it.

3. Growing US-China tensions

The rise of China is certainly a global story with worldwide ramifications. In 2014, look for China's rise to take a new twist, sparking greater competitive tensions with the United States that are much more out in the open than in years past. From more incidents at sea like the near collision with the USS Cowpens, trade disputes and new trade blocs (perhaps the TTP?), allegations of more spying but from both sides (calling Edward Snowden?), there is no easier prediction to make than that 2014 will not be an easy one for US-China ties. Though China talks of creating a new type of great power relations and seeking win-win ties and US President Barack Obama is eager to foster a peaceful relationship, tensions seem to be too great to allow for wishful thinking.

My prediction for 2014 on Washington-Beijing relations: Look for the tone of this relationship to get much more competitive, tense, and filled with franks statements of intent from both sides, who will be less eager to please and more confrontational.

2. Drama in the South China Sea

It seems tensions here are never ending. Look for this year to continue a familiar pattern. Considering the number of claimants to the various islands, reefs, inlets and rocks along with the natural resources that are thought to lie beneath them, 2014 should provide plenty of stressful headlines. Look for Beijing to continue to press its claims through what fellow Diplomat author James Holmes calls "small stick diplomacy" but with a stick that might get a little bit bigger. With Beijing recently deploying its new, but non-functional, aircraft carrier to the region for manoeuvres after declaring a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, expect China to keep the pressure on in areas like Second Thomas Shoal.

1. East China Sea hot spot

Forget Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear programme or America's "drawdown" in Afghanistan - there is no more important international hotspot in the world today than the East China Sea, where tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are growing. Given that the world's second and third largest economies are locked in a cycle of increasing tensions that could conceivably draw in the US, the stakes could not be higher. With China continuing to probe the area with naval and air assets and declaring an ADIZ over the area, while Japan seeks to enhance its armed forces with a focus on defending this disputed area, a deadly witches brew seems to be taking shape. Could naval and air assets come close enough that an incident occurs? What happens then? In 2014, we might just find out.


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