Will the Pacific Become the New Middle East?

The old adage “generals always fight the last war, especially if they’ve won it” applies not only to the military and war, but to almost all aspects of human conflict and interaction, such as diplomacy. Paradigms often change right underneath the noses of so-called “experts” or policymakers.

The Spratly Islands are a few of many islands disputed by regional players such as China and Japan. The potential for increased diplomatic and/or violent tensions should not be ignored.

The Spratly Islands are a few of many islands disputed by regional players such as China and Japan. The potential for increased diplomatic and/or violent tensions should not be ignored.

In regards to foreign policy, in the late ’90s, while everyone was staring through the prism of the Soviet-U.S. conflict many at the top missed the growing importance of the instability in the Middle East and the rise of militant Islamist organizations and ideology. Similarly, the myth of Middle Eastern autocrats’ stability and relative global permanence was so entrenched within the milieu of the U.S. foreign policy establishment that it became almost sacrosanct. Yet this ossified way of thinking did not stop the Arab Spring from happening.

So while the rest of us have been gazing at the various conflicts and flash points in the Middle East and North Africa, it’s good to ask ourselves: where will the next geographic or ideological center of conflict or instability be in the world?

The United States may actually have finally produced an accurate assessment to this question with its Asia/Pacific “pivot.”

While many critics claim this “pivot” is coming too soon as the Middle East will still retain global and strategic relevance in the coming years, this criticism misses the point. The idea is not to ignore the Middle East completely but to be prepared for the next regional shakeup or flash point that will have important implications for both the global arena as well as U.S. national interests.

So why Asia/Pacific? Perhaps most importantly and often overlooked in this debate is the role of (surprise, surprise) fossil fuels. The South and East China Seas contain an ever-growing potential of oil and natural gas around its various disputed islands and surrounding bodies of water. It would take a blind man not to recognize how appealing this prospect is to not only the United States and the West but to China, the growing global power–it frees up all of these states from having to deal with the Middle East’s instability, autocrats, and various conflicts, plus it could downplay the role of OPEC in the global oil market.

Yet with a finite resource comes conflict, whether violent or nonviolent. And the regional claims over the various islands and territories of the South and East China Seas has not lacked for the potential for the former nor the existence of the latter. Tensions between China and Japan, China and Vietnam, China and South Korea, and China and the Philippines have flared over various territorial disputes. These smaller Asian states (who have begun building up their navies and militaries) have also feuded not just with China but among each other.

But this “oil rush” not only involves regional players but also has the potential to expand to a global competition. The United States, India, Europe, Russia all have interests in getting involved (and all already have to some extent). This holds the potential for diplomatic conflict between a variety of parties, proxy wars mostly coming in asymmetric form, and (perhaps the least likely) full-out traditional war between states (for example: Japan and China or the United States and China).

Now throw North Korea into this mix.

Get the picture?

While some of these scenarios seem extremely unlikely (such as the full-out traditional wars between states like the U.S. and China), that does not mean the U.S. and global leaders should not prepare preventative measures to keep these unlikely yet potentially devastating actions from happening.