This was a busy year in Asia, especially China, which witnessed a once-in-a-decade transition of power as the leadership of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee changed hands. Meanwhile, China’s military took big strides (symbolically, at least) by unveiling the country’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished vessel bought from Ukraine in 1998. The Chinese Navy’s new flagship may be a bit creaky and outdated, but its unveiling has shifted the strategic calculus in a part of Asia where three of the continent’s strongest economies — China (which continues its ongoing territorial spat over Taiwan), Japan and South Korea continue to bear deep and long-lasting grudges against each other.
Those issues blew up this year in the East China Sea, where China and Japan went toe to toe over ownership of a string of tiny islands known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Diaoyus, and rights to the potential oil deposits in the surrounding waters. Japan engaged in a similar spat with South Korea over the Takeshima Islands, known in Korea as the Dokdo Islands. Although neither quarrel devolved into a full scale conflict, the tensions came as President Obama sought to shift U.S. foreign policy focus to Asia, which included training deployments of Marines in Darwin, Australia. Disputes over the islands have been going on for decades, but with the rapid rise in China’s military and the Obama Administration’s intended shift of strategic focus on the Pacific region, this could be a story to watch in 2013.