Asia has remained without major military confrontations for more than four decades, since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The continent with the most number of territorial disputes cannot, however, take peace and stability for granted. The South China Sea, one of the most militarised stretches of waters anywhere on the planet, has witnessed increasingly tense encounters between the world’s two most powerful nations. This week, China fired four medium-range ballistic missiles during its ongoing military exercises around the disputed Paracel Islands. The Pentagon said the move cast doubts over Beijing’s 2002 commitment to avoid provocative activities in the disputed seas. China raised objections to the entry of an American reconnaissance plane into a designated no-fly zone and to a freedom of navigation operation by a guided missile destroyer. Both nations have called their respective conduct permissible within international rules.
Sino-American interests have diverged over the last decade as the US concluded that China had evolved into its strongest competitor and would not liberalise its political system as Washington had hoped. With its US$13 trillion (S$17.7 trillion) economy, comprising strong manufacturing, trade and technology sectors, China has declared that it would take centre stage in the global arena. As adversarial elements come to dominate their relationship, the forecast for the region looks choppy.