Nonetheless, there is real danger that the episode will make the regional atmosphere even more unpredictable. Already, Seoul has canceled a series of proposed bilateral defence and military exchange programs with Tokyo, while Beijing has strongly condemned the trip and is under pressure to retaliate.
Diplomatic temperature is so high at the moment is, in large part, due to the succession of incidents in recent weeks, including Abe’s visit to Yasukuni; China’s unilateral declaration of an air “self-defense identification zone” and a counter-move from South Korea; China’s refusal to participate in a UN arbitration process over a territorial conflict with the Philippines; and the near-miss of a Chinese naval vessel and a US warship in the South China Sea.
These developments come in a context of significant change in the region, including a once-in-a-generation transition of leadership in Beijing; Abe’s election; and the US’ Asia pivot. In this fluid environment, the geopolitical landscape is shifting as all countries maneuver for advantage.
A clear danger, at this heated moment, is therefore serious misjudgement by one or more parties. And this point was emphasized by Hagel on Dec. 19 following the China-US near-collision at sea: the most serious bilateral encounter in the South China Sea for several years.
The US defence secretary accused Beijing of acting in a “very incendiary [way] that could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation.”
While China claims that its vessel was conducting “normal patrols” and adhered to proper and “strict protocol,” Hagel asserts it cut in front of the US ship.
With numerous potential flashpoints this year, key external parties, including the EU, are understandably urging calm and restraint on all sides. Unless this caution is heeded, there is a growing possibility of an incident triggering an explosive further escalation of tension.
Andrew Hammond was formerly a geopolitical analyst for Oxford Analytica. He was also a special adviser in former British prime minister Tony Blair’s government.