Tensions in South East Asia are coming to a head once again as Chinese jets patrol disputed islands as part of the new Defense Zone declared recently by the rising power. China is facing fierce opposition to its attempts to control the South and East China Seas with Vietnam, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the USA providing and supporting counter claims to the region that holds a great deal of importance not only in terms of prestige and strategy but in resources.
However, as American, Japanese and Chinese aircraft sortie and counter-sortie in the east and Vietnamese and Indian vessels play cat-and-mouse with Chinese patrols in the south it may be worth taking a step back and placing this issue in a wider military picture to better hypothesize about the result. It is my belief that while tensions may continue to rise and fall there is no way that this simmering conflict can become full-blown war as it has in similar situations in the past. If one was to examine the contention that led to the war between Great Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands or, to provide an older if more local example, the tensions that led to the Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria and Korea in the early 20th Century it would be fair to assume that such heated rivalry in modern South East Asia would lead to outright conflict between China and its near neighbors.
On the other hand, one must also examine the actors involved in these widespread disputes. Alone South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam or even Japan are not capable of facing the full economic and military might of China but, in actuality Beijing is not simply dealing with this aggregate of small states but rather with their guarantors. In the south it must contend with the reasonably formidable power of India who has made it clear that it is backing Vietnam in its efforts to stop the spread of China's regional hegemony. India has long had cool relations with China, even after their association as part of the BRICS group, as their shared border is a matter of some issue.
Beijing must also see that the nations to her east, such as Japan and South Korea, are backed by the might of the United States of America and also by the power it wields over organisations such as the UN and NATO. With the dramatic re-shuffle of US strategic interests which pivoted much of her maritime power to the pacific theatre America is easily capable of backing up its vital allies in the Far East if push came to shove.
Even with its impressive military and economic capabilities it would be disastrous for China to become embroiled in conflict with either of these nations conventionally. Added to this the fact that both the USA and India are fully nuclear armed states unlike the countries whose interests they support and any form of direct military confrontation is unthinkable.
So the big question that follows is what happens now? With all these nations snarling and swiping at one another like a group of lions around a kill only big enough to feed one of them, but with none of them stupid enough to be the first to attack, what options are available for the region? Diplomacy is of course the answer with the ASEAN group which includes many of the disagreeing nations and which has links to the US, China, Japan and South Korea as the most likely forum.
That however is a whole new post in of itself and this case study does demonstrate something quite interesting. Whether diplomacy solves these issues or not this conflict cannot boil over, all it can ever do is simmer; indeed this effect may happen with greater or lesser intensity depending on new situations that arise but, unlike the previous examples discussed above, the post-Cold War international systems (including the deepening of international ties such as the UN, the rise of regional powers and even the prevalence of nuclear weapons) seems to have constrained the parties to such an extent that no war can ever truly occur unless something in the region radically changes. Now I am not normally one to sing the praises of international organisations or nuclear proliferation but, in the case of the South and East China Sea disputes there may have been some, often unintended, positive effects from their existence.