As the U.S.-China trade war enters a new phase and Trump is threatening to launch a currency war, global attention is highly focused on the relationship between the U.S. and China. However, besides looking at their instruments in this conflict, we should ask ourselves where conflict could move next. Several developments brewing under the radar indicate that the center of geopolitical competition has shifted to East Asia.
What does this mean?
It is easy to forget that several major conflicts have been brewing in East Asia for some time. In the South China Sea, territorial disputes between China and its neighbors linger. Meanwhile, American warships patrol the waters as the U.S. seeks to build a maritime coalition to contain Chinese maritime expansion. Indeed, China’s navy is growing rapidly. In the middle of the sea, Beijing is aggressively reasserting its claim over Taiwan. To the north, North Korea is growing more confident to pressure the U.S. into resuming talks by launching new missile tests (possibly encouraged by China). Surrounded by threats, Japan is reestablishing an independent defense policy.
All of these conflicts suggest that the center of geopolitical competition has shifted to East Asia. Most importantly, it shows that China is trying to secure its own backyard. This is analogous to the 19th century when the U.S. sought to secure its backyard from foreign influence (by issuing the 1823 Monroe Doctrine and 1904 Roosevelt Corollary). It may seem self-evident that geopolitical competition has shifted to East Asia. However, such a multitude of conflicts focused in a small region could lead to unpredictable escalations, especially since the U.S. and China are both positioning themselves in all of these conflicts (Taiwan, Korea, South China Sea, Japan). Especially Taiwan and South Korea could grow more unstable as they will be pressured to choose sides.