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The continent largely owes its massive economic ascent to the lack of major military conflict across borders, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a new Project Syndicate editorial.
But the factors that contributed to peace and stability in Asia "are now coming under increasing pressure," Haas said. That jeopardizes the strategic situation that has facilitated Asia's economic miracle, he added.
Territorial claims have always dogged the region, ranging from Russia and Japan's post-World War II island dispute to current South China Sea tensions, but they never escalated into war, "partly because no country has wanted to jeopardize economic growth by initiating a conflict," Haas said.
Asia's demographics also help explain decades of stability.
"Most Asian countries host relatively homogeneous societies with strong national identities, the chance of civil conflicts erupting and spilling over national borders is relatively low," Haas said.
Moreover, decades of a deep-rooted U.S. military presence reduced the need for Asian countries to develop large military programs of their own, "and reinforced a status quo that discourages armed adventurism," Haas continued.
Recent developments, however, threaten to sow seeds of conflict and disrupt Asian economic prosperity.
Chinese demonstrations of sovereignty, part of President Xi Jinping's strategy to make his country a global superpower, are particularly worrisome, Haas stated.
"As China adopts an increasingly assertive foreign policy — exemplified by its border dispute with India and territorial claims in the South China Sea — other countries are increasingly motivated to boost their own military spending. As that happens, it becomes more likely that a disagreement or incident will escalate into a conflict," he wrote.
Trump's retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and tirades against U.S. allies on defense spending aren't helping either, Haas continued. "The growing unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy could weaken deterrence and prompt allies to take their security into their own hands."
Heated rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as the latter considers striking Guam, has also exacerbated the region's political outlook.
"Just the threat of such a strike could be destabilizing, if it drives concerned U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan to increase their military spending and reconsider their non-nuclear postures," Haas noted.