When the history of the early part of the 21st century is written, one of the great heroes of the People's Republic of China might turn out to be an anonymous map-maker from the late 1940s whose work is helping to drive increasingly dangerous confrontations today between China and its neighbors across the South China Sea.
The Asia-Pacific region has achieved tremendous growth in the span of a single generation. Regrettably, a large and relatively disproportionate share of the fruits of that growth is going toward military expansion. The sources of instability include not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but also -- and more immediately -- efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion. And those efforts are taking place largely at sea. We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What Japan and China must exchange are words. Should we not meet at the negotiating table, exchange smiles and handshakes, and get down to talking?
Today, Asia once again faces a historical challenge. It is standing at the crossroads between progress and retrogression. Why and how have we come this far? Partly, this is accounted for by the new and divergent outlook for the regional order -- a rising China, a resurgent Japan, strong Russia, anachronistic North Korea obsessed with the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the United States who is rebalancing to Asia. It looks like the "Pandora's Box" is being opened, with all sorts of problems -- both old and new -- popping up, complicating the already very complex situation. Any of these developments, if mishandled or left unchecked, could escalate into a much more serious situation with far reaching consequences for the region.
Both Washington and China are steadily upping the stakes in their rivalry as China's provocations of U.S. friends and allies become more flagrant and America's commitments to support them become more categorical. Both believe they can do this with impunity because both believe the other will back down to avoid a clash. There is a disconcertingly high chance that they are both wrong. Asia today therefore carries the seeds of a truly catastrophic episode of mutual misperception.
As Obama accomplished something quite real in the Asia-Pacific his administration and the European Union pursued something unreal, announcing new sanctions against individual Russians for their involvement in Russia's strategy to foment discord in Ukraine and keep that nation, which is only a few hundred miles from Moscow, out of NATO.
This week, U.S. President Barack Obama is visiting Asia to meet U.S. allies and assure them of America's backing as China rises to become the dominant power in the region. In light of the West's weak response to Putin's takeover of the Crimea, some Asian allies are concerned about whether the U.S. will stand steady in the event a conflict breaks out between one of its allies and China.
Though mired in a thoroughly modern nation-state dispute with very real military consequences, both China and Japan also proudly draw their identities from continuous cultures that are not only thousands of years old, but also grounded in common civilizational roots. Perhaps if they peered far enough back to those common roots, they would not be so bent out of shape over who owns a few rocks in the ocean. Looked at differently, the islands very much resemble a dry zen garden where a series of mindfully positioned rocks rest harmoniously amid a meticulously raked gravel sea of nothingness. It is here that one contemplates peace.
China has, and always will, act in its own best national interests. Its worldview is consistent with the cultural roots of the Middle Kingdom -- keeping out barbarians, not invading them. This outlook of centrality is directly opposite to the 20th Century Soviet and American notions of universality.
Although China and the U.S. are strategic competitors, there are common interests, complementary interests and, of course, conflicting interests between them. Such complexity provides the two countries the room for active cooperation when interests converge and a degree of preventive cooperation where interests conflict.