Caucasus to the Himalayas are a reminder that “frozen conflicts” are never really so. They are always a trigger pull away from a sudden shift towards violence. This is certainly true with the South China Sea, where there are many fingers on many triggers. China has reclaimed and militarised various rocks and reefs, Vietnam is now doing the same, the US Navy is conducting freedom of navigation operations while supporting the Philippines and Vietnamese navies to assert themselves, and Britain has deployed a carrier to the region. As one of the world’s most strategic maritime trade corridors becomes more claustrophobic, it has also become more confused and dangerous.
Throughout Asian history, great civilisations have expanded and contracted across vast terrestrial and maritime spaces. In the past century, Japanese imperialism, decolonisation, Cold War proxy competition and China’s dramatic rise have left an indelible mark on East Asia’s patterns of interaction.