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The Future of Asia: Forces of Change and Potential Surprises – Supplementary Report

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Regional Stability Threatened by Border Disputes and Rising Nationalism

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What is it?
Why is it important?

What is it?

There are several long-standing border disputes in Asia. Recent rhetoric in relation to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has shown how quickly tensions can escalate, and the risk that ensues from governments committing themselves to respond if a particular act occurs.1

Some of the most volatile border disputes include the Kashmir Border (India/Pakistan), Aksai Chin (China/India), Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (China/Japan), and the Liancourt Rocks (Japan/South Korea), any of which could destabilize the region. While most public attention is focused on the current dispute between Japan and China, or India’s land border disagreements with Pakistan and China, there is also a heightened chance of conflict over the Spratly Islands, a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.2Large parts of the Spratly Islands have not been legally recognized as belonging to a particular country, with different portions claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. If a current Taiwanese search for oil and gas in the region is successful, countries may make stronger claims to the islands.3

North Korea also continues to be a potential source of instability and unpredictability in the region. The recent public removal and subsequent execution of Jang Song Thaek, uncle-in-law and mentor to ruler Kim Jong Un, might be the sign of a power struggle among the ruling elite that may result in significant shifts in policies and relationships with neighbouring countries, including the unknown status of the North Korean special economic zone in Rason, which borders China and Russia.4 Internal power struggles, food scarcity, nuclear ambitions and diplomatic tensions, combined with some early signs of opening parts of the economy in controlled circumstances,5  6  7  8 may result in significant changes in North Korea, with unpredictable consequences for Asia.

Why is it important?

It is difficult to make a judgment about the effectiveness of current diplomatic efforts to resolve Asian border and sea disputes because leaders are nearly always publicly optimistic about resolving, or at the very least not escalating, disputes between countries. A nascent Code of Conduct in the South China Sea might be a significant positive step,9as are ongoing talks to improve communications between Chinese and Indian officials in disputed areas.10 A number of factors will affect the likelihood of conflict, including nationalist sentiment, the actions of individuals not under government control, and the influence of the U.S. in the region. Other problems may arise from the absence of international rules for the use of drones in disputed territories,11 and the overlap of Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) – an area in which unidentified aircraft are liable to be interrogated and intercepted – with the ADIZ recently announced by China.12 South Korea has now set up its own ADIZ, and the U.S., Japan and South Korea have not officially complied with China’s identification zone.13

Although Asian governments recognize the potential for conflict over territorial claims, no one can accurately predict the catalyst for military action, the duration of any conflict, how it would be resolved, or the role of other countries. The way that events unfold would largely determine the impact of military confrontation. A prolonged conflict or even a skirmish between Asian countries could potentially affect all aspects of the continent’s institutions and society, with particularly detrimental consequences for trade relationships, economic growth and migration.


  1. Sevastopulo, D. and J. Soble. “China-Japan relations take turn for worse.” The Financial Times. October 2013. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/db42ec8e-3fab-11e3-8882-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2kIaARh5g(link is external)
  2. Himmelman, J. and A. Gilbertson. “A Game of Shark and Minnow.” The New York Times. October 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/10/27/south-china-sea/(link is external)
  3. “Spratly Islands.” Ethnographic Edge. http://www.ethnographicedge.com/event/spratly/(link is external)
  4. “Public purge in Pyongyang puts stability in question.” Oxford Analytica. December 2013. https://www.oxan.com/display.aspx?ItemID=DB187722&StoryDate=20131210(link is external)
  5. Yenko, A. “North Korea: Kim Jong Eun Launches Own Version of Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android OS?” International Business Times. August 2013. http://au.ibtimes.com/articles/498556/20130813/smartphone-apple-iphone-google-android-os-north.htm(link is external)
  6. Habib, B. “North Korea’s surprising status in the international climate change regime.” East Asia Forum. November 2013. http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/11/09/north-koreas-surprising-status-in-the-international-climate-change-regime/(link is external)
  7. Winstanley-Chesters, R. “Hydrological Engineering,Coastal Land Reclamation and the Multifunctional Paradigm in the DPRK.” Sino-NK. May 2012. http://sinonk.com/2012/05/06/taegyedo-tidal-reclamation-multifunction/(link is external)
  8. Noor, F. “China paves way for new gold rush.” New Straits Times. October 2013. http://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnist/china-paves-way-for-new-gold-rush-1.381016(link is external)
  9. “Code of Conduct for South China Sea.” The Japan Times. November 2013. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2013/11/03/editorials/code-of-conduct-for-south-china-sea/(link is external)
  10. Krishnan, A. “India, China conclude talks; to strengthen border mechanism.” The Hindu. June 2013. http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/world/india-china-conclude-talks-to-strengthen-border-mechanism/article4862865.ece(link is external)
  11. Idem. Sevastopulo and Soble. “China-Japan relations take turn for worse.” The Financial Times. October 2013.
  12. Welch, D. “What’s an ADIZ?” Foreign Affairs. December 2013. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/140367/david-a-welch/whats-an-adiz(link is external)
  13. Ibid.; Tiezzi, S. “China Is Surprisingly OK with South Korea’s New ADIZ.” The Diplomat. December 2013. http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/china-is-surprisingly-ok-with-south-koreas-new-adiz/
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Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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