Modern war in the 21st century is a rare phenomenon confined to small theaters. But this decade has brought the grim specter of Great Power confrontation back inside our living rooms. As 2017 approaches its last quarter it’s worth examining two standoffs that threaten world peace and put millions of lives at risk.
It’s easy to think of Syria as the epicenter for a mortal struggle between traditional rivals; the US and its alliance system against Russia’s national interests. Yet at its worst the long conflict tearing apart the Levant has been an exercise in restraint. It’s now apparent the Chinese periphery is the greatest fault line there is. In the last few months the Korean peninsula and an inaccessible borderland are both forcing China to act in ways it hasn’t for at least 25 years–as a belligerent and a ruthless keeper of the peace.
So what can the rest of humanity expect in a world where Asian problems have a serious impact on everything else?
North Korea’s Ascendance
In July this year North Korea conducted two missile tests that upset all of its neighbors. Although ballistic missiles have long been a fetish for Pyongyang, 2017 was different because Kim Jong Un himself presided over launches for ICBMs that put much of the Asia-Pacific within its destructive range, including the American heartland.
This has forced the US and its mercurial leadership, whose reactions veer from bombast to tempered official statements, to pile on the grim warnings; bombers, boomers, and carrier strike groups were mobilized at a time of year when Seoul and Washington embark on large-scale joint exercises. These new circumstances mean a US-led “decapitation strike” is now a likelihood rather than a cool buzzword.
A serious consensus has emerged, however, that insists everything will turn out fine. Sure, Kim has got deadly nukes. But for him to control an arsenal of mass destruction changes the rules forever…and creates fresh opportunities
If the Hwasong-14 ICBM is as effective as claimed, and there are numerous good arguments that either vouch for or cast doubt on its quality, then a conventional assault on North Korea is too risky. In August the Economist went as far as publishing fiction that explored how a nuclear war in East Asia pans out. (The results are horrifying.) With such dire outcomes in mind, writers like Odd Arne Westad argue that it makes more sense if North and South Korea were allowed to negotiate a compromise.
The ultimate consequence, of course, is a miscalculation that puts North Korea on the warpath, leading to its downfall along with millions killed in nuclear fire. Fresh demonstrations of its missiles are anticipated in the coming months and the confusion and terror these cause may lead to war.
The Sino-Indian Rift
For decades now India and China have guarded their respective sides of a 2,000 kilometer border whose actual lines were never settled. This came about because the crust of the Himalayas is a difficult boundary and Chinese encroachment a half century ago created stalemates that remain today.
These conditions set the stage for a comical shoving match in June, when unarmed Indian soldiers physically stopped their Chinese counterparts from surveying an area for road construction. It may seem ridiculous–the footage is–but the altercation in barren Doklam might trigger a war between Delhi and Beijing. It would be the first such clash since 1962, when Chinese troops overran Indian outposts in Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern enclave that’s still contested territory.
The language from either side has been anything but calm. Both insinuated hostilities for weeks, whether by officials or through the media, with Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley claiming the armed forces are ready for combat. The PLA made its own threats, insisting “India must immediately and unconditionally withdraw all its trespassing troops.” Almost three months since the crisis flared up a halfhearted attempt at diplomatic compromise went nowhere.
The area known as Doklam, or Donglang to the Chinese, forms a chunk of territory that’s vital for India, whose eastern states are only accessible through a narrow junction, the Siliguri Corridor, between Bhutan and Bangladesh. Any Chinese annexation of land near the Bhutan border could threaten India’s ability to reinforce its eastern states in wartime.
What’s driving the Chinese to provoke its neighbor then? Finding an essential text or memorandum spelling out the PLA’s intentions is foolhardy. But it isn’t an exaggeration to point out Beijing’s assertiveness ever since Xi Jinping took office, whether in the South China Sea or the UN Security Council.
The problem is India isn’t Southeast Asia and its government can’t be intimidated to submission. Worse, both countries are arms racing and always recognized their differences. Now that the possibility of war looms, it’s unwise for India and China to back down.
The flashpoints along China’s fringes reveal how precarious its place in the world is. Two conflicts, each having origins in the beginning of the People’s Republic, have now undergone fresh iterations with even worse consequences than before. Is there a way out? None.
Unless, of course, good intentions and trust prevail for years to come. But this is naive.
The best forecast suggests North Korea remains unmolested and free to threaten its neighbors–South Korea and Japan–without serious consequences. There’s a slight possibility a historic rapprochement may occur but Pyongyang doesn’t seem ready for this at the moment.
The Doklam standoff is a lot more worrisome because the “international community” cares so little about it. The world’s largest countries now have a reason to undermine each other and militarize their respective borders. If Delhi and Beijing normalize backstabbing and provocation then tiny little skirmishes, with or without bloodshed, could be inevitable.
This is an extremely dangerous pattern since two nuclear armed states will have a casus belli for plotting their enemy’s destruction. Its disheartening to accept how old wars are at risk of erupting anew. At least the immediate future is now clear. Asia won’t be at peace this century.