Avoiding World War III in Asia

    Parag Khanna

    Security, Asia

    Democratic peace theory is both inspirational and aspirational—but at this moment in history it is of limited applicability.

    World War II still hasn’t ended, yet World War III already looms. When China and Japan agreed to normalize relations in 1945, it was stipulated that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (a string of uninhabited rocks equidistant from Japan, China and Taiwan) would not be militarized and the dispute would be put off for future generations. That future is here. The recent discovery of large oil and gas reserves under the islands has heated up the situation dramatically, with military budgets surging, and warships, coast guards and fighter jets scrambling to assert control over the commons.

    Meanwhile, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have drastically escalated into the world’s most dangerous flashpoint over the past seven decades precisely because the Korean War itself was never formally ended in 1953. Despite the recent summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, neither South nor North Korea has yet to formally recognize the other’s existence, each claiming to be the sole legitimate government of the entire Korean Peninsula. Similarly, the unresolved status of the princely state of Kashmir at the time of the partition of South Asia into independent India and Pakistan in 1947 has been the direct or proximate cause of three major wars and a near nuclear standoff in 2001 between the postcolonial cousins.

    These three major Asian fault lines are a reminder that the biggest risk of conflict in the twenty-first century stems from unsettled conflicts of the twentieth century. Asia is awash in other still-disputed territories and boundaries such as Arunachal Pradesh (between India and China, which Beijing calls “South Tibet”), the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (claimed by numerous Asian countries) and the southern Kuril Islands (where there is Russo-Japanese friction, with Tokyo calling them the “Northern Territories”).

    The world has been lucky that deterrence, economic integration and a shared distaste for the past two centuries of Western domination have prevented Asia’s major powers from crossing the Rubicon. But rather than simply hope luck does not run out, the solution to these tensions is to immediately seek permanent settlement on peaceful terms.

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