Thursday saw several incidents that called attention to the increasingly insecure and fast changing strategic and security dynamics of a region known in recent decades mostly for booming business. Another Uighur terrorist attack in China, a shoot-out between the Koreas along their disputed maritime border and, to top it off, a coup in Thailand all brought simmering regional conflicts to the fore. These incidents come on the heels of a consequential Russo-Chinese strategy session and an ongoing maritime clash between China and Vietnam.
To the outside world, the surprising thing about East Asia is how the sudden eruptions of conflict seem to come out of nowhere and then retreat into the background as if nothing ever happened. The exchange of artillery fire along the maritime extension of the Korean demilitarized zone, where the North suffers from narrow access to the Yellow Sea and the two sides quarrel over fishing rights and sovereignty, is a fairly routine occurrence. But it cannot be taken for granted; the latest shots occurred near Yeonpyeong island, where civilians died in 2010 amid North Korean shelling, after a surprise attack nearby earlier in the year that sank the corvette ChonAn.
Meanwhile, Uighur militant attacks in China over the past year, including the bombings Thursday in Xinjiang province's capital of Urumqi, highlight a growing security problem for Beijing as it accelerates economic development in an ethnic minority region, where separatists and Islamist militants maintain ties with jihadists in Central and South Asia. The problem is not so much the bare fact of an uptick in militant attacks -- Beijing has faced spikes of Uighur militancy in previous decades -- but the shifting international networks that have enabled Uighurs to stage attacks with surprising new methods and, in the case of Kunming in March, outside their home region.
At the center of it all stands China, the giant of the region. China is at last experiencing the socio-economic stress that has greeted every East Asian miracle economy at the culmination of its export-and-investment surge, even as it attempts to use its newfound wealth and naval power to carve out a larger niche in seas crowded with competitors and long dominated by foreign navies. China's arrival as a great power has prompted a reaction from Japan, which has -- after years of dithering -- moved decisively out of isolationism to challenge the threat to the status quo. As Tokyo attempts to shore up its privileged position through greater military assertiveness and closer alliances with the United States and with its neighbors, China will accelerate its moves, fearing that its moment of unity and strength could be sabotaged by the same hostile powers that sowed chaos across its regions throughout the preceding two centuries.
In Thailand (see our previous coverage), military coups are a recurring theme, a culturally acceptable though extralegal way of imposing stability when regional struggles for control over a heavily centralized government threaten to bring business and daily life to a halt. But this coup, like the one in 2006, will ultimately deepen divisions, even if the army manages to broker a temporary truce. Moreover, Thailand's economic partners are growing fearful that the mostly theatrical nature of Thai instability is becoming truly dangerous as the political factions see a once-in-a-century chance to entrench their institutional power amid the upcoming royal succession and ongoing socio-economic transition.
The coup was mostly seen as a victory for the elites in Thailand who have grown disillusioned with popular democracy and have sought for years to diminish the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who commands support in the rural north. Unable to win elections, the opposition has instead called for an appointed prime minister, and pleaded with the military for months to step in.
The military said Thursday that it would be fair to both sides in the continuing political dispute. But it allowed antigovernment demonstrators to remain in their protest site overnight, even as soldiers in black masks dispersed crowds loyal to Mr. Thaksin and the deposed government.
There’s a high possibility of very drastic measures and suppression this time.
As soldiers spread out throughout Bangkok on Thursday, the generals issued a series of announcements, declaring most of the Constitution “terminated,” banning gatherings of more than five people, imposing a curfew and shutting schools. Television stations were ordered to replace their regular programming with messages from the military and patriotic songs. The military also issued a summons for 41 political figures tied to Mr. Thaksin, including Ms. Yingluck, who was removed as prime minister by a court this month and replaced by a deputy.
Meanwhile, Russia has moved from a resurgence in its western periphery to a re-engagement with the Pacific powers. Moscow means to stabilize, diversify and ultimately modernize its economy through expanding energy exports and granting deeper access to cash-rich Asian investors. While Russian President Vladimir Putin must look first to Chinese President Xi Jinping as the greatest partner in this regard, his strategy is one of neutrality. Putin has pursued warmer economic ties with Japan, which remains a large customer and a necessary hedge against China, while also clearing debts and expanding transport linkages with North Korea in pursuit of more direct contact with the peninsula as a whole. Russia is also pursuing arms sales, energy exports and a range of industrial ventures in Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere.
The United States -- always a Pacific power -- has also shifted attention back to the region, looking to revive its inherent strengths in trade, investment and security relationships that may need to be brought to bear in negotiations with China over the future international order.
It is no surprise, then, that the spaces between these great powers should see rising friction. All these powers want to prevent the others from dominating the vital lines of communication on sea and air, as well as strategic spaces like the Korean Peninsula and the Southeast Asian mainland. Military spending and modernization are ramping up as territory and sovereignty become all the more contested. All of these powers also hope to solidify advantageous positions in the booming Asian economy.
The multipolarity and lack of universally acknowledged rules of competition have prompted the East Asian powers to talk of building new frameworks to promote stability. These frameworks could take the form of an all-encompassing Chinese notion of "Asian security," a Japan-centric security initiative to tie Southeast Asia together and to the U.S. alliance, an American pivot to the region or lesser multilateral initiatives like a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea or regional trade pacts. Yet differences in national interests prevent these frameworks from having the binding effects needed for true stability. The result is a lack of clarity and greater insecurity.
The danger of the region's incredible dynamism lies in the differences in how the different powers, great and small, view their opponents' capabilities. Mutual distrust requires judgments based on what an opponent can do, rather than what one thinks they might want to do. Such judgments can be flawed when each power simultaneously seeks to maximize the appearance of strength to deter encroachments. Beijing's internal insecurities come amid its fears of containment from Pacific powers, and a loss of stability at home can motivate more aggressive moves to improve its position, while it has a chance, in the neighboring seas as its rivals remain relatively disorganized. The Korean conflict persists in a similar state of uncertainty and rapidly changing security environment. And a number of Asian states -- not only Thailand but also Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines -- are suffering from growing internal divisions over the next phase of socio-economic development, a trend that complicates American and Japanese hopes of a more coherent group of Southeast Asian states to assist in the process of constraining China.