The Asia-Pacific today is a region facing a diverse array of security challenges and issues, yet none appear to pose a significant and immediate threat to continued regional stability. Undoubtedly, issues such as piracy, terrorism, and climate change are present in the region; indeed, piracy is quite rampant in the Strait of Malacca, a major global shipping route, and acts of terrorism can be seen in the 2002 Bali bombings and the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. Yet, despite these issues, they are not immediately pressing, and are being proactively dealt with: ultimately, regional piracy affects only a limited amount of global shipping, the region has taken active steps to countering terrorism through multilateral security arraignments and support from the United States, and the worst affects of climate change are decades away. Instead, the most important security threat facing the region today may not be an intrastate or transnational issue, but rather an interstate one. This may seem paradoxical – as a region “locked into” long-standing and stagnated international disputes, such as territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands and South China Sea, there seems to be no immediate chance for interstate conflict. Yet states in the region, especially China, have recently escalated their rhetoric involving such disputes, and have engaged in military “saber-rattling” over them. Such conditions present the opportunity for a serious security issue, that of unintended escalation into direct interstate conflict.
States “slipping” into conflict, or coming close to doing so, is not without historical precedent. One need only look at the Cuban Missile Crisis to see how military escalation and “saber rattling” over a source of diplomatic tension can bring two states to the brink of conflict, even when their leaderships have calculated that conflict is outside of their national interests. Scholars of security studies acknowledge that, though a state’s overall foreign policy goals, intentions, and actions are at the discretion of that state’s upper leadership, the “tangibles on the ground,” especially involving military action, are often under the command of the immediate military leadership. As such, military activity that brings two states into escalating levels conflict may occur if the military leadership in the immediate area of that conflict allows it do so. In the case of the Asia-Pacific, for example, a standoff between Japanese and Chinese warships in the South China Sea may escalate into conflict if the commanders of those ships unilaterally decide to conduct, or are forced to react to, a show of force. Alternatively, the circumstances of a situation may push the militaries of two states into a position of increasing hostility and tension. For example, a 2001 crash involving an American military surveillance aircraft and a Chinese warplane, which was tailing the American aircraft, quickly became a heated and tense issue between the two states, one which offered the potential for an escalation into military conflict.
Of course, as the example of the 2001 warplane crash demonstrates, the escalation of a conflict on a low level may not necessarily push two states into broader conflict and war. Yet, considering the circumstances of the region today, it seems increasingly possible that such might be the case. The states participating in territorial disputes, especially China and Japan over the South China Sea, have come to espouse strong rhetoric over those disputes. As these states’ governments increase their rhetoric, the increasingly premise their legitimacy upon a successful resolution to the issue which is within their favor. For the Chinese government, success in the South China Sea will demonstrate that the Communist Party has lifted China into a position of regional power, has made the country militarily strong, and has restored China as a rightful hegemon. For the Japanese government, success in the South China Sea demonstrates that it can successfully contain and curtail the threatening rise of China. As such, failure on the part of either state to accomplish its territorial goals will amount to the premise of what those goals are built around being delegitimized. Yet, because these goals have become a prominent part of these states’ rhetorical positions, and have become significant parts of their national perceptions and understandings, it is becoming increasingly difficult for those states to back away from the issue. Accordingly, should conflict begin to escalate on a low level, these states may be left with no better choice than to escalate it to a broader extent.
In the case of China and Japan, it may be that, should a military skirmish break out in the South China Sea, both states will need to escalate militarily in order to “save face” domestically and maintain their rhetorical position internationally. The Chinese Communist government cannot afford to back away from the South China Sea, especially after it has premised its continued governance on its ability to raise China to a position of prominence. The Japanese government cannot afford to allow China a victory in the South China Sea, thereby confirming the Japanese peoples’ fears of a rising China. The leaderships of these states have decided that it is more within their interest to escalate these territorial disputes to the brink of conflict instead of actually resolving them through conflict; however, should events spiral out of their control and conflict escalate beyond their intentions, they may be left with little option but to escalate further. A potential war between China and Japan would be devastating for regional stability and prosperity; as such, the potential for these states to slip into conflict, which seems more and more likely considering the extent to which they will “saber-rattle” and the character of their rhetoric, is perhaps the most significant security issue facing the region today.