For the past two decades, East Asia has been perhaps the most politically stable and economically successful corner of the planet. But these days, the governments of the region seem intent on messing with that formula.
On Wednesday, North Korea – always the neighbourhood's enfant terrible – successfully launched a rocket that both put an unidentified object into space and raised concerns that Pyongyang is closer to having a deployable nuclear-weapons program. That generated outrage at the United Nations Security Council (although it wasn't clear China was going to allow any further sanctions against its unpredictable ally) and likely bolstered the hopes of hawkish candidates just days before elections in both Japan and South Korea.
Thursday was Beijing's turn to shake the table. After tut-tutting Wednesday that the Security Council's reaction to the North Korean launch should focus on "avoiding escalation of the situation," China upped the ante in its own highly charged dispute with Japan over the ownership of a quintet of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, sending a maritime surveillance plane into Japanese-controlled airspace for what Tokyo said was the first time ever.
Japan scrambled eight F-15 fighter jets in response, marking the first appearance of military hardware in the three-month-old test of wills over the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Four Chinese maritime patrol boats were also spotted in Japanese-controlled waters around the islands Thursday, the 17th such incursion since September, when the Japanese government bought the uninhabited atoll from a private owner.
The timing of the escalation was almost surely intentional: Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the start of the Nanjing Massacre, which saw upward of 250,000 Chinese killed after the city was captured by Japanese troops. China says Japan has never properly apologized or atoned for the three weeks of mass murder, and references to Nanjing were commonplace at government-authorized anti-Japanese demonstrations around China this fall.
The Korean Peninsula and the disputed islands are just two of a growing number of flashpoints around the region. China has also rattled neighbours Vietnam and the Philippines by pressing its claim of ownership to most of the South China Sea, most dramatically by starting construction of a new city on an island that Vietnam considers its territory.
The United States, concerned over China's growing assertiveness, – and anxious to reassure its own allies in the region – announced last year that it was shifting military emphasis away from the Middle East and toward Asia. But the so-called U.S. strategic "pivot" has hardly settled matters down.
Whether the region is headed toward escalating confrontation, or gradual détente, may well be decided by the almost back-to-back elections in Japan and South Korea over the next six days.
Japan's muscular response on Thursday – F-15s dispatched to confront an unarmed surveillance plane – may have been Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's last-ditch effort to look tough on China ahead of a Sunday election that is expected to see his centre-left Democratic Party of Japan resoundingly swept from office by the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader, former prime minister Shinzo Abe, has in the past aggravated China by bowing at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine outside Tokyo, where several infamous Second World War criminals are buried.
Second place in some polls is the newly formed Japan Restoration Party, headed by the nationalist ex-governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. He has warned Japan must stand up to Beijing or "become the sixth star on China's national flag."
The turmoil in the region could also have a decisive impact on South Korea's Dec. 19 presidential election. Before North Korea's provocative launch, most opinion polls gave the centre-right Park Geun-hye – the daughter of South Korea's Cold War-era military ruler – a slight lead over the centre-left Moon Jae-in. Many pundits believed that Pyongyang's act is likely to ensure a victory for Ms. Park, whose party favours a tougher line toward North Korea and a close alliance with the United States.
Official media in China and North Korea have bemoaned the likely election of Mr. Abe in Japan and Ms. Park in South Korea. But the Chinese and North Korean governments may just have guaranteed their adversaries' rise.