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Risk #7: East Asian geopolitics

Note: Today is the seventh in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013

East Asia's geopolitical stability will continue to deteriorate this year. Countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan will take tougher stances on territorial disputes with China and seek to involve Washington more closely in these issues. But China's new government will find it difficult to compromise and may even take more forceful positions given its need to consolidate internal support and channel growing nationalism. Meanwhile, the US will continue to enhance engagement with Asian partners -- particularly on the economic side -- which will raise skepticism in Beijing.

The most worrying concern during the early part of 2013 will be the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, claimed by both China and Japan. Tensions surrounding the islands spiked in late 2012 following the Japanese central government's decision to purchase several of them from their private owners. The growing presence of Chinese ships and aircraft in surrounding waters is stoking nationalist sentiments in Japan and increasing the risk of a clash that could quickly escalate and ensnare the world's three biggest economies in an ugly dispute.

In 2013, regional governments will lean toward political considerations more than economic ones. In Japan, a new government led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become more assertive on foreign policy issues. The LDP was able to capitalize on nationalist sentiments in its campaign, and Abe will carry through with some of his promises in 2013 by establishing a more assertive national security and foreign policy posture. Abe will also bolster the U.S.-Japan security alliance and likely commit Japan to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. China will regard such moves as confrontational.

Meanwhile, Beijing's appetite for compromise will be limited. China's political transition will make it more difficult for Beijing to be flexible on foreign policy issues. The country's new leaders will need to consolidate internal support. Moreover, growing middle-class expectations and concern over the state's control of information are expected to encourage a more nationalistic foreign policy. If Beijing faces a foreign policy test, the incoming administration might feel the need to demonstrate its foreign policy mettle and avoid being seen as capitulating to outside interests.

Policies toward Asia from the U.S. will not change much: The rebalancing of its attention toward the region will continue, with more substance on the economic than on the strategic side. In particular Washington's trade negotiators will focus on negotiations for the TPP talks.

The South China Sea will be another hotspot. There has been relatively little tension there in recent months, but that calm is unlikely to continue. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, will maintain their aggressive postures toward China. Neither country has an interest in provoking a military conflict, but domestic politics make it difficult to back down without a perceived (even if minor) but unlikely concession from Beijing.

Later this week, we'll profile Risk #8: Iran

GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/GettyImages

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