A Scramble for Asia?

NEW DELHI – Asia’s festering Cold War-era territorial and maritime disputes highlight the fact that securing long-term region-wide peace depends on respect for existing borders. Attempts to disturb Asia’s territorial status quo are an invitation to endemic conflict – a concern that led Asian states to welcome the US and Russia to their annual East Asian Summit.

The recent Sino-Japanese diplomatic spat over disputed islands in the East China Sea – followed, almost instantly, by a Sino-Vietnamese row over similar atolls – has put the spotlight on China and its regional policy. Governments across Asia are concerned that China’s rapidly accumulating power is emboldening it to assert territorial and maritime claims against neighbors stretching from Japan to India. Even against tiny Bhutan, China has stepped up its lands claims through military incursions.

China’s new stridency underscores Asia’s central diplomatic challenge: coming to terms with existing boundaries by shedding the baggage of history that burdens all of the region’s important inter-state relationships. Even as Asia is becoming more interdependent economically, it is becoming more politically divided.

A number of inter-state wars were fought in Asia since 1950, the year that both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started. But, whereas the Europe’s bloody wars in the first half of the twentieth century have made war there unthinkable today, the wars in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century, far from settling or ending disputes, only accentuated bitter rivalries.