Flashpoints and Crises in Asia: Shaping a Way Ahead

By Robbin Laird

During my visit to and meetings at the Australian National University, I was given a copy of an interesting book by Dr. Brendan Taylor, entitled The Four Flash Points: How Asia Goes to War.

The book is well worth reading as the author provides a sobering analysis of key flash points and how those flash points might generate broader conflict.

The flash points are the following: the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan.

What is clear is that these flashpoints will be tests for crisis management among the key players in the region.

But the book itself does not really focus on this aspect, but upon the author’s assessment of how best to build out a different kind of order within which the flashpoints will be subsumed.

And his prescription really emerges at the end of his book.

“China will be unable to dominate Asia in its entirety.

“”America will continue to meet its longest-standing objective – the prevention of regional dominance by a great power rival.

‘But it will be able to do so credibly and with considerably lower risk than through an ill-advised attempt at preserving the incumbent order.

‘Pulling back from Taiwan and the South China Sea does not represent a radical departure in strategic focus for America.

“It will not break any treaty commitments to US Asia-Pacific allies: Australia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.

“At the same time, China should be reasonably content because it will have the strategic space it craves to assuage its deep insecurities. (page 189).

He adds shortly after this statement the following further elucidation of his position.

“This need for a careful calculation and clarification of vital interests also calls into question the idea that the United States should extend its defensive line in Asia during periods of strategic challenge.

“In truth, that line has moved back and forth throughout US history with varying results.

At times it has been drawn back as far as Hawaii and with an avowedly ‘American first’ president in the White House, a return to that approach is not beyond the realm of possibility. (191).”

The book provides a good look at the flashpoints; it argues for the nature of an underlying global change in the region, and the importance of the United States accepting global change while constraining Japan.

Interestingly, Australia does not appear prominently in his analysis.

One could pose a different set of questions generated by his look at flashpoints.

One would start with how the military transformation underway by the liberal democracies might affect their options in dealing with a crisis generated by China?

How might military forces be configured to best be able to prevail in a crisis from the standpoint of the US and its allies?

How might civilian policy makers prepare themselves for handling the kinds of crises likely to be generated by the various flash points?

Also, it is important to consider is the nature of the regimes.

The assumption throughout out the book seems to be that there is a stable ascendant China working to expand its perimeter of defense to assuage its historical “insecurities.”

But China is hardly that; and the question of how interests get defined is really the key part of the conflict calculus which the author highlights as well.

No matter what the United States ends up doing, the big change in the region is really Australia and Japan. 

Both are expanding their perimeters of defense and are very likely to converge on some common approaches and defensive postures.

The current Chinese leader I am sure will consider this to be aggressive and would lead to insecurities in Beijing, but it is highly unlikely that a convergence of capabilities and interests by Japan and Australia would directly menace the Chinese mainland.

It would threaten the ability of the Chinese to push out into the Pacific and write a new rule book, arguably a major objective for the current regime.

I would argue that the intersection of Japanese and Australian policies will be a key aspect in constraining China and providing a way to ensure that a liberal democratic approach be protected against the authoritarian agenda shaped by Beijing.

Another key player could well be India in reaching into the region and working with the Aussies and the Japanese as well as the Americans.

And for the Americans adjusting their approach, something underscored by the author, makes a great deal of sense, but I am not sure that sacrificing Taiwan is a price worth paying.

New approaches to military modernization conjoined with innovations in how to conduct crisis management are clearly needed if the flashpoints discussed by the author are to be managed and dealt with.

The core questions need to be asked:

How do we shape effect crisis management approaches to the flashpoints likely to bubble up in the next decade?

How do we build effective military tools to deal with these crises?

How do we reshape our societies to prepare for conflict and to reduce our social vulnerabilities?

How might the enhanced cooperation of Japan and Australia enhance credible deterrence and how might the US more creditably work with such a dynamic?

Brendan Taylor, The Four Flash Points: How Asia Goes to War. (La Trobe University Press, Australia, 2018).

The featured photo shows USS Decatur (left) and a Chinese Destroyer (right) in the South China Sea. Supplied: US Navy via GCaptain

An American navy ship came dangerously close to a Chinese warship during a recent exercise, forcing the US destroyer to perform evasive manoeuvres to avoid a collision.

The incident has been called an “unsafe” encounter between the two ships by Pentagon officials, and at one point the Chinese ship was reportedly around 45 yards from the American vessel.

“A [Chinese] Luyang destroyer approached USS Decatur in an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea,“ Captain Charles Brown, a spokesman for US Pacific Fleet, said in a statement.