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COMMENTARY

The Asian strategic order is dying, and volatility will be the norm

WHEN somebody is reaching the end of their life, they often suffer from lots of apparently unrelated ailments - fevers, aches and pains, unlucky falls. Something similar may happen when a strategic order is dying. There has been a rash of diplomatic and security incidents across east Asia in the past month, which are symptoms of a wider sickness.

In late July, Chinese and Russian air forces staged their first joint aerial patrol in the region, causing South Korean warplanes to fire hundreds of warning shots at the Russian intruders. The South Koreans are also facing the most serious deterioration in their relations with Japan in decades, with the Japanese imposing trade restrictions last week in a dispute that has its origins in World War II. North Korea has also just restarted missile tests, endangering US-led peace efforts.

All of the other east Asian flashpoints - Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong and the US-China trade war - are also looking more combustible. Protests and strikes in Hong Kong are still gathering momentum. Chinese officials are now openly discussing military intervention; last week a White House official drew attention to a massing of Chinese troops just across the border from Hong Kong. For the Trump administration, however, the major preoccupation remains its trade dispute with China, which also intensified last week, with the US imposing a new set of tariffs.

In July, a Chinese oil exploration vessel entered waters claimed by Vietnam, leading to a stand-off between heavily armed Chinese and Vietnamese ships. The government of the Philippines, too, sounded the alarm about Chinese naval incursions and called for American assistance. China's growing assertiveness was underlined by the news that Beijing is developing a military base in Cambodia, its first in South-east Asia.

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Tensions over Taiwan continue to rise. In late July, a US warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait and China released a defence White Paper, accusing the Taiwanese government of pursuing independence and threatening a military response. Meanwhile, the US is talking of deploying intermediate-range missiles in East Asia soon, following its pullout from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last week.

On the surface, many of these incidents seem unconnected. But collectively, they point to a regional security order that is coming apart. America's military pre-eminence and diplomatic predictability can no longer be taken for granted. And China is no longer willing to accept a secondary role in East Asia's security system. In these new circumstances, other countries - including Russia, Japan and North Korea - are testing the rules.

The past 40 years have been a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity across East Asia, which has also transformed the global economy. But Asia's economic miracle relied on peace and stability. Those conditions were established in the mid-70s, with the end of the Vietnam war and America's rapprochement with China.

Since then, America has tolerated and even facilitated the rise of China. In return, China has tacitly accepted that America would remain the dominant military power in the Asia-Pacific. You could label these arrangements the "Kissinger order" in East Asia, after Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state who brokered the new relationship between America and China in the early '70s.

But both President Xi Jinping of China and President Donald Trump of the US have rejected basic elements of the Kissinger order. Mr Trump has abandoned the idea that US-Chinese ties are mutually beneficial by launching his trade war; Mr Xi has set about challenging America's strategic pre-eminence.

China's challenge to American power has raised the question of how long the US' strategic dominance in Asia will last. Rather than offering reassurance, Mr Trump has added to the uncertainty by openly questioning the value of US alliances with Japan and South Korea.

As one Asian foreign minister put it recently: "The damage that Trump has done will outlive Trump."

The loss of the US' regional authority is evident in Washington's inability to control the feud between Japan and South Korea, its two most important regional allies. Even the Australians are beginning to doubt American leadership; one senior Australian diplomat told me recently that, with the trade war intensifying, "there will come a point when America and Australia will part company on policy towards China".

But doubts about American leadership are not matched by any desire to embrace a China-dominated region. On the contrary, from Tokyo to Taipei and from Canberra to Hanoi, there is growing anxiety about Beijing's behaviour. That anxiety is only increased by the growing closeness between China and Russia. From Moscow's point of view, the recent joint air patrol underlined Russia's return as a Pacific power - just as military intervention in Syria signalled its re-emergence as a power in the Middle East.

The Kissinger order in East Asia did not resolve most of the historic disputes and rivalries in the region, but it froze regional conflicts in place, buying time for peaceful development. Now the geopolitical climate has changed so frozen conflicts are moving again. As the ice melts, things can move fast in dangerous and unpredictable ways. FT