East Asia: the new global hotspot?

Battle of Ideas festival 2013, Saturday 19 October, Barbican, London


Kim Jong-un’s North Korea may call for a ‘merciless, sacred, retaliatory war’ against the US imperialists and South Korean ‘puppet warmongers’ it blames for inching the Korean peninsula towards thermonuclear war. But China, despite distancing itself from its communist neighbour’s antics, also feels itself threatened by the US. In the East and South China Seas, across the Pacific, and even in its relations with India, China feels encircled, whatever successes are achieved by its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy of alliances with countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Is it paranoia or imperialist ambitions that lead China to hack Pentagon computers and build up a carrier fleet? What should we make of Xi Jinping’s talk of his ‘strong-army dream’ and desire for ‘the great revival of the Chinese nation’?

Japanese military posturing over the Senkaku Islands has led its military ally America to call for restraint and cooler heads. But some see the US guarantee of Japan’s security as a potential trigger of world war – analogous to the interlocking alliances that precipitated World War I a hundred years ago. How accurate is it to see conflicts in the East and South China Seas, and nearby, through the lens of the tensions that broke out in 1914? Is Myanmar really a new Serbia? What about the dangers of border skirmishes between India and China? India and Pakistan? And has the friction really gone out of the relationship between China and Taiwan?

Is East Asia really the key cockpit for tomorrow’s major wars? Perhaps saner voices will prevail against the national resentments that characterise China, Japan, America and other states in the region. But what is the exact nature and strength of the different nationalisms at work there, anyway? Does Asia’s arms race reflect rivalry for natural resources, historical resentments, or the simple fact of China’s rise and America’s decline? Could hothead nationalism – whether Japanese, Chinese or North Korean – be the spark that ignites war in the east?

Ben Chu

economics editor, the Independent; author Chinese Whispers: why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong

Professor Steve Tsang
director, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, London South Bank University

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum