Four Surprises That Could Rock Asia in 2013

Are we paying attention to the wrong crises?


As the world’s center of economic gravity shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it’s moved from a region of enduring peace to one of pervasive friction. Last spring, China and the Philippines nearly came to blows over a small shoal in the South China Sea. In mid-December, Japan dispatched eight fighter planes after a small Chinese plane entered Japanese airspace, near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. North Korea tested another missile in mid-December, and appears to be preparing for a third nuclear test. Peace between India and Pakistan remains elusive, while Indonesia and the Philippines continue to wrestle with Islamic terrorism.

But there are quieter threats to Asia, potentially more explosive than a North Korean missile. Here are four underappreciated threats to the world’s most populous region:

Taiwan Independence

Since President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, Taipei and Beijing have improved ties and deepened their economic integration: cross-strait trade reached $127.6 billion in 2011, an increase of more than 13 percent from 2010. Some national security experts misinterpret this trend, thinking that growing economic interdependence will overwhelm factors pushing the two sides apart, and that interdependence will provide Beijing with leverage it can use to compel unification. But while Taiwan’s businesspeople enjoy closer ties with China, the average Taiwanese voter continues to move toward independence. Over the last 20 years, the portion of citizens of Taiwan identifying as "Taiwanese" has increased from 17.6 percent of those polled in 1992 to a whopping 53.7 percent today; those identifying as "Chinese" has declined over the same period from 25.5 percent to just 3.1 percent today. Support for independence has nearly doubled over the last two decades, from 11.1 percent to 19.6 percent. Support for immediate or eventual unification, meanwhile, has more than halved, from 20 percent in 1992 to 9.8 percent in 2012.

Economic integration is apparently failing to halt what Beijing sees as a troubling trend. With a cross-strait trade agreement and a slew of other, easier deals already on the books, Beijing now expects Ma to discuss political issues. But Ma doesn’t have the domestic political support to pursue political talks — in March 2012, two months after his reelection, 45 percent of those polled said the pace of cross-strait exchanges was "just right," but the share of respondents answering "too fast" had increased to 32.6 percent, from 25.7 percent before the election. Any Chinese shift toward a more strident Taiwan policy could portend a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait sooner than many expect, as a lack of progress on these issues may buttress hawks in the new Xi Jinping administration. And America would surely be dragged in: Even low-level coercive measures against Taiwan — a top 10 U.S. trading partner and security ally — could throw U.S.-China relations into a tailspin.

Jihadists Attack China

China has managed simmering unrest in its Western region of Xinjiang for decades, including a major riot in July 2009 that left nearly 200 dead. Beijing has long repressed Xinjiang’s roughly 20 million Muslims, most of whom belong to the Uyghur minority, denying them the right to freely practice Islam and citing counterterrorism as an excuse for silencing dissent. In the summer of 2011, authorities even outlawed fasting for Ramadan. So far, China doesn’t seem to be a preferred target for al Qaeda and other jihadi organizations. Its internal policing — Beijing spends more on domestic security than on defense — also makes it a hard target.

But as China extends its economic and military reach around the world, while continuing to repress its sizable Muslim minority, the likelihood of it being the victim of a major terrorist attack increases exponentially. While al Qaeda views the United States as its primary antagonist, it bears ill will toward China as well. According to the Jerusalem Post‘s translation of a November statement attributed to current al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri, China is one of "five arrogant powers … who impose their will on the rest of the world’s peoples" through the United Nations Security Council. Zawahiri excoriated the U.N. for its acquiescence in allowing non-Muslim countries to seize Muslim territories, including China’s takeover of "Eastern Turkistan," the name by which Xinjiang separatists refer to their territory. Washington’s longtime support for the Saudi royal family has provided terrorists with at least a rhetorical rationale for attacking the United States. Beijing’s decision to pull closer to Riyadh — driven by a desire for more flexibility in China’s relationship with Iran — will not win it any plaudits from al Qaeda.

Another risk factor for China is Africa, which, aggregated together, will likely replace the European Union as the country’s largest trading partner within five years. Working conditions at Chinese-owned interests in Zambia, for example, are notoriously bad. At a copper mine in 2010, two Chinese managers fired shotguns into a crowd of workers protesting over poor pay and conditions, wounding 11. Some miners in Chinese-run operations in that country must work for two years before they are provided with safety helmets.

China, with its massive business interests in Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Sudan (all unstable nations host to large Muslim populations) — and with a sustained naval anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia — might increasingly find itself the recipient of violence that has thus far been directed elsewhere. Attacks like the April 2007 raid of a Chinese oil concern in Ethiopia by Somali separatists, which killed 74 Africans and nine Chinese workers, could become much more common.

Beijing may have concluded that such is the cost of doing business in Africa. But a terrorist attack on its own territory would be a shock. Beijing would likely respond to a major internationally launched terrorist attack in China by expanding its already intrusive surveillance apparatus and further limiting civil liberties — especially in places like Xinjiang and Tibet. (After the July 2009 riots, Beijing took the extraordinary step of shutting off most of the Internet throughout the region for 10 months.) A devastating terrorist attack could make China rethink its longstanding policy of non-interference in other country’s domestic affairs, which, despite its maritime meddling, it has kept since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam. On the positive side, the United States might find common cause in combating Islamist terrorism. But if the ruthlessness of China’s domestic counterterrorism is mirrored in its foreign ventures, the United States and China would find themselves at loggerheads.

The U.S. Navy Can’t Save the Day

On December 26, 2004 a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused the deaths of over 230,000 people and left widespread devastation in its wake. In response, the Pentagon launched Operation Unified Assistance, at a cost of $200 million, as part of a U.S. government effort to provide relief to afflicted areas. It deployed more than 11,000 people, 29 ships, and 46 airplanes. The United States had the logistical ability and the budget to provide medical care to the sick and injured, food to the hungry, hope to the hopeless while fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2004, when the tsunami struck, the United States had a naval fleet of 292 active ships. The Navy estimated that if budget sequestration — automatic cuts to the defense budget provided for in the 2011 Budget Control Act — occurred, actual fleet size could drop to roughly 230 ships in a decade. Republicans in The House Armed Service Committee estimated in September 2011 that sequestration would cut the number of U.S. airlift planes from 651 to 494. The fiscal cliff deal reached on New Year’s Eve delayed sequestration by two months. Even if sequestration is averted, new defense cuts will be part of a deficit reduction agreement. These, combined with the $889 billion in cuts already approved during President Obama’s first term, will reduce U.S. capability and its ability to fund expensive rescue missions.

The King of Thailand Dies

The 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been Thailand’s head of state since 1946. Over the past several decades of his rule, Thailand has seen numerous coups, wars in neighboring states, economic booms, and economic busts. Violent street protests in 2010 left more than 90 dead and 2,000 injured, and 2012 saw a deepening constitutional crisis. Through it all, Bhumibol’s immense popularity and moral authority had ensured that he remained a crucial and stabilizing figure in Thai politics.

Lèse majesté laws restrict criticism of the king, but his popularity amongst Thais is not in doubt. The same cannot be said for his son and heir, the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who has had three wives (compared to his father’s one wife of 62 years) and threw a lavish and unseemly birthday party in 2009 for his miniature poodle Foo Foo. Thais may be legally barred from saying so, but the king’s passing and the crown prince’s coronation is a worrying eventuality. After a rumor of his ill health swept the country in October 2009, the Thai stock market dropped more than 8 percent and the value of the baht tumbled. Bhumibol’s death could usher in a new period of Thai politics, in which the new king lacks the authority or charisma to impose stability on an unstable system.

Enduring unrest could destabilize Thailand’s neighbors, including the fragilely democratizing Burma, and make Bangkok a less reliable treaty ally for Washington as the U.S. pivots to Asia. And Thailand’s economic health matters: The 1997 collapse of the Thai baht set off the Asian financial crisis, whose global economic fallout included the sudden devaluation of the Russian ruble and the collapse of what was then one of the United States largest hedge funds.

The threats posed by territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are imminent. North Korea has the potential to collapse quickly and without warning. But it is precisely because these issues are so pressing that the crises described above could take Washington by surprise.

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