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Will America's Next War Be in the Pacific?

Escalating tensions among China, Japan and the U.S. could ignite armed conflict -- and sink the global economy.

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Powder Keg in the Pacific

While war clouds gather in the Pacific sky, the question remains: Why, pray tell, is this happening now?

Several factors seem to be conspiring to heighten the risk of confrontation, including leadership changes in China and Japan, and a geopolitical reassessment by the United States.

* In China, a new leadership team is placing renewed emphasis on military strength and on what might be called national assertiveness.  At the 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held last November in Beijing,  Xi Jinping was named both party head and chairman of the  Central Military Commission, making him, in effect, the nation’s foremost civilian and military official.  Since then, Xi has made several heavily publicized visits to assorted Chinese military units, all clearly intended to demonstrate the Communist Party’s determination, under his leadership, to boost the capabilities and prestige of the country’s army, navy, and air force.  He has already linked this drive to his belief that his country should play a more vigorous and assertive role in the region and the world.

In a speech to soldiers in the city of Huizhou, for example, Xi  spoke of his “dream” of national rejuvenation: “This dream can be said to be a dream of a strong nation; and for the military, it is the dream of a strong military.”  Significantly, he used the trip to visit the  Haikou, a destroyer assigned to the fleet responsible for patrolling the disputed waters of the South China Sea.  As he spoke, a Chinese surveillance plane entered disputed air space over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, prompting Japan to scramble those F-15 fighter jets.

In Japan, too, a new leadership team is placing renewed emphasis on military strength and national assertiveness.  On December 16th, arch-nationalist Shinzo Abe returned to power as the nation’s prime minister.  Although he  campaigned largely on economic issues, promising to revive the country’s lagging economy, Abe has made no secret of his intent to bolster the Japanese military and assume a tougher stance on the East China Sea dispute.

In his first few weeks in office, Abe has already announced plans to  increase military spending and review an official apology made by a former government official to women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.  These steps are sure to please Japan’s rightists, but certain to inflame anti-Japanese sentiment in China, Korea, and other countries it once occupied.

Equally worrisome, Abe promptly  negotiated an agreement with the Philippines for greater cooperation on enhanced “maritime security” in the western Pacific, a move intended to counter growing Chinese assertiveness in the region.  Inevitably, this will spark a harsh Chinese response — and because the United States has mutual defense treaties with both countries, it will also increase the risk of U.S. involvement in future engagements at sea.

In the United States, senior officials are debating implementation of the “ Pacific pivot” announced by President Obama in a  speech before the Australian Parliament a little over a year ago.  In it, he promised that additional U.S. forces would be deployed in the region, even if that meant cutbacks elsewhere.  “My guidance is clear,” he declared.  “As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.”  While Obama never quite said that his approach was intended to constrain the rise of China, few observers doubt that a  policy of “containment” has returned to the Pacific.

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