One of the most dangerous international disputes that the United States could get dragged into has little importance to U.S. security – the disputes nations have over small islands (some really rocks rising out of the sea) in East Asia. Although any war over these islands would rank right up there with the absurd Falkland Islands war of 1982 between Britain and Argentina over remote, windswept sheep pastures near Antarctica, any conflict in East Asia always has the potential to escalate to nuclear war. And unlike the Falklands war, the United States might be right in the atomic crosshairs.
Of the two antagonists in the Falklands War, only Britain had nuclear weapons, thus limiting the possibility of nuclear escalation. And although it is true that of the more numerous East Asian contenders, only China has such weapons, the United States has formal alliance commitments to defend three of the countries in competition with China over the islands – the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea – and an informal alliance with Taiwan. Unbeknownst to most Americans, those outdated alliances left over from the Cold War implicitly still commit the United States to sacrifice Seattle or Los Angeles to save Manila, Tokyo, Seoul, or Taipei, should one of these countries get into a shooting war with China. Though a questionable tradeoff even during the Cold War, it is even less so today. The "security" for America in this implicit pledge has always rested on avoiding a faraway war in the first place using a tenuous nuclear deterrent against China or any other potentially aggressive power. The deterrent is tenuous, because friends and foes alike might wonder what rational set of US leaders would make this ridiculously bad tradeoff if all else failed.
Of course these East Asian nations are not quarreling because the islands or stone outcroppings are intrinsically valuable, but because primarily they, depending on the particular dispute involved, are in waters that have natural riches – fisheries or oil or gas resources.
In one dispute, the Senkaku or Diaoyu dispute – depending on whether the Japanese or Chinese are describing it, respectively – the United States just interjected itself, in response to the Chinese expansion of its air defense zone over the islands, by flying B-52 bombers through this air space to support its ally Japan. The United States is now taking the nonsensical position that it is neutral in the island kerfuffle, even though it took this bold action and pledged to defend Japan if a war ensues. Predictably and understandably, China believes that the United States has chosen sides in the quarrel.
Then to match China, South Korea extended its own air defense zone – so that it now overlaps that of both China and Japan. But that said, as a legacy of World War II, South Korea seems to get along better with China, its largest trading partner, than it does with Japan. Also, South Korea and Japan have a dispute over the Dokdo or Takeshima Islands, depending on who is describing them, in the Sea of Japan. Because the United States has a formal defense alliance with each of those nations and stations forces in both, which would it support if Japan and South Korea went to war over the dispute? It’s anyone’s guess.
All of these disputes over unimportant islands and the resources surrounding them are so 20th century anyway. The most publicized resource is oil, which is not really as strategic as the countries think it to be. In my book No War for Oil, I explain why nations came to believe – falsely – that oil is a strategic commodity for militaries and economies and which requires governments to jockey for such resources using armed force. In fact, instead of using such power to attempt to commandeer oil the way the old-style imperialists did, it is cheaper to merely buy the oil in the worldwide marketplace. In the 21st century, prosperity is comes from knowledge and technology more than command over natural resources. What’s more, the United States would be well to understand this reality in the Middle East too.
Finally, the United States ought to reconsider its outdated alliances in East Asia. If the nations there want to fight petty wars over an obsolete vision of the world, does the United States really want to endanger its homeland to participate in them? The answer should be a resounding "no!"