Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:41 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:41 | SYDNEY

Cheonan and the emerging Asian order


Raoul Heinrichs

3 June 2010 15:09

As Graeme Dobell reported yesterday, the Lowy Institute has released a report that explores the ways a changing balance of power, together with critical political choices, could produce a number of different scenarios for Asia's future security environment. 

It was propitious timing. Asia is changing and, as events in recent weeks suggest, not necessarily for the better. North Korea's sinking of the Cheonan (pictured) has raised tensions between the two Koreas to levels unseen since the Cold War.

Worse still, the crisis – as always on the Korean Peninsula — appears to be taking on a major power dimension, with reports today that the US is considering sending the carrier USS George Washington, along with its battle group, to the Yellow Sea, a maritime zone on China's periphery.

On one level this announcement is designed as a strong signal to the two Koreas: to the North that its provocations could have deep ramifications; and to South Korea that its alliance with the US is on steady footing. But at another level, it's all about China, and in particular about applying some not-so-subtle coercive pressure on Beijing to keep its ally and client on a tight leash.

China's likely reaction is an open question. Will it bring Pyongyang into line? If the US does dispatch a major force to the Yellow Sea, will China shadow it, as it has a number of Japanese vessels in recent months? Or will a diplomatic compromise be reached to head off the risks of escalation or miscalculation?

As the crisis unfolds, it is striking to see elements of each of the four scenarios we explore in the paper: enduring US primacy, a more competitive balance of power, a cooperative concert of powers, or a new version of primacy with China at the top.

It reminds me of a more general point we make in our introduction:

...Asia’s strategic future will be something of a hybrid. Indeed, it may well be that each future emerges then recedes in succession, or that a more fluid or composite order arises...In this regard, our four futures may be imagined as the corners of a square, with the reality of Asia’s strategic future lying somewhere in between.

Photo by Flickr user S.KOREA KDN, used under a Creative Commons license.