22 October 2016
Soldiers patrol the Demilitarized Zone, the de facto border between North and South Korea. Photo: Internet
Soldiers patrol the Demilitarized Zone, the de facto border between North and South Korea. Photo: Internet

Not all quiet on key Asian fronts, but a war is far away

Three strategic areas in Asia could be the location of a military confrontation if major powers go toe to toe with each other.

They are the Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas; the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan) and neighboring chains between China and Japan; and the “nine-dash line” in the troubled waters in the South China Sea.

Other than the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the Military Demarcation Line on the Korean peninsula also concerns China, thanks to Beijing’s Communist bond with Pyongyang.

Last week, Seoul began drills with US troops and resumed propaganda broadcasts using gigantic banks of loudspeakers after its soldiers were wounded by landmines believed to be laid by the North.

Tensions rose sharply after an exchange of artillery fire.

Beijing rushed to make peace and may have leaned on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with an offer of economic aid if he played nice.

Bilateral talks between North and South were then held at Panmunjom truce village.

Fewer observers were on tenterhooks this time, in contrast with when similar incidents happened before.

Given the substantial US military presence in South Korea and Japan, it would be suicidal for Kim to ignite a genuine war.

Even if he did so, China would never send its troops to fight side by side with North Korean soldiers, as it did during the Korean War in the 1950s.

In the South China Sea, Beijing engaged in armed conflict with Hanoi twice (in 1974 and 1988), yet the hostility between the neighbors subsided in the 1990s, and China and Vietnam officially finalized their maritime boundaries in 1999.

By comparison, Beijing’s relations with Manila have remained rather strained.

If it were not for the last-minute withdrawal by the Philippines, a war would have broken out over the sovereignty of Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands will hardly become a real battleground, as despite the bickering between Beijing and Tokyo, neither side is prepared to pull the trigger just for these barren islets.

So, while there may be some small frictions, the region is nowhere near a full-scale war.

Demographically, none of the countries concerned has the population base that can sustain a fully fledged war.

When the population is aging rapidly, I doubt that there will be enough young people to be soldiers or workers for war supply.

The median age of a country’s population can be a key determinant of whether militarism can be sustained.

The world’s population was generally very young during World War II, but today, only the Islamic world is still warmongering, as, apart from Africa, Muslim-majority countries have the youngest populations as a whole.

South Korea and Japan have been grappling with an aging population, and China’s situation is not much better.

North Koreans are younger, but they also die earlier than their peers in the South. The North also has a smaller population.

The Philippines has the most enviable fertility rate, but the country lacks the overall strength essential for a modern war.

A substantial portion of Chinese and Japanese soldiers is made up of only sons, and so, there are not a few antiwar campaigners.

The second factor to consider is that the subtle equilibrium has taken a new form with Washington’s military rebalancing, which has effectively shattered Beijing’s ambition of grabbing a leading role in geopolitics.

Any military contest in the region, if any, will be basically cosmetic.

Pyongyang has nukes, and its people are more united, but the South is more developed and is backed by the US and Japan.

As for the rivalry in the South China Sea, China has many contenders, particularly Vietnam, and if there is a war, the US, Australia and even India may step in.

There’s no need for them to engage in any kind of showdown.

All they need to do is to shut down the Strait of Malacca, a vital artery for China’s energy security.

Also, even though the Chinese military is formidable, it is only so in size.

Japan’s Self-Defense Force is one notch above it, both in experience and in its ability to mobilize the entire society.

The Chinese military has some obvious shortcomings: many senior commanders and generals are corrupt, and its soldiers lack training, in particular in maritime combat for its navy and air force.

Chinese warplanes didn’t fly beyond the first island chain, reaching from the islands off the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East to the Malay Peninsula, until July 2013, when Japan confirmed Chinese fighter planes flew past the Miyako Strait.

Earlier this month, Beijing dispatched news about a drill held in the western Pacific.

For the first time, its warplanes flew more than 1,000 kilometers beyond the first island chain.

It isn’t a remarkable feat by any standard for a modern warplane to fly more than 1,000 km.

Don’t forget that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, more than 6,500 km away in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, more than 70 years ago.

As a sailing enthusiast, I sailed past the first and second island chains in 2007, when I voyaged over 10,000 km from the South Pacific all the way to Hong Kong, crossing the Solomon Sea, Bismarck Sea, Philippine Sea and South China Sea.

I also sailed twice between Hong Kong and Japan, in 2011 and 2014, through the Taiwan Strait, the Miyako Strait and the Tsushima Strait between Japan and South Korea, for a round trip of over 3,000 km each time.

Even as an amateur, I have been able to accomplish such voyages several times. It highlights the inferiority of the Chinese navy and air force in terms of their maritime capabilities.

Given all this, we can rule out the possibility of a major war in the region, although that doesn’t mean some countries won’t seek to flex their muscles once in a while in regional, small-scale conflicts.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 24.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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US President Barack Obama visits the Demilitarized Zone. Photo: White House

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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