Just as Herodotus is the father of history, Thucydides is the father of realism. To understand the geopolitical conflict zones of the 21st century, you must begin with the ancient Greeks. Among the many important lessons Thucydides teaches in his History of the Peloponnesian War is that what starts a war is different from what causes it.
Thucydides chronicles how the Peloponnesian War began in the latter part of the late fifth century B.C. with disputes over the island of Corcyra in northwestern Greece and Potidaea in northeastern Greece. These places were not very strategically crucial in and of themselves. To think that wars must start over important places is to misread Thucydides. Corcyra and Potidaea, among other locales, were only where the Peloponnesian War started; not what caused it. What caused it, he writes in the first book of his eight-book history, was the growth of perceived maritime power in Athens and the alarm that it inspired in Sparta and among Sparta's allies. Places like Corcyra and Potidaea, and the complex alliance systems that they represented, were in and of themselves not worth fighting a war over -- a war that would last more than a quarter century, no less. That didn't matter. They were pretexts.
No one understood this distinction, which was perhaps made first in literature by Thucydides, better than Thucydides' most distinguished translator, the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes writes that a pretext for war over some worthless place "is always an injury received, or pretended to be received." Whereas the "inward motive to hostility is but conjectural; and not of the evidence." In other words, the historian or journalist might find it hard to find literal documentation for the real reasons states go to war; thus, he often must infer them. He often must tease them out of the pattern of events, and still in many cases be forced to speculate.
In applying the wisdom of Thucydides and Hobbes to conflict zones across Asia, a number of insights may be obtained.
The South China Sea conflict, for example, becomes understandable. Here are geographical features which, in their own right, are valuable because of the measureable energy deposits in surrounding waters. They also fall in the path of sea lines of communications vital for access to the Indian Ocean in one direction, and the East China Sea and Sea of Japan in the other, making the South China Sea part of the word's global energy interstate. Nevertheless, let's assume one is somewhat dismissive of these facts and says such specks of dry land in the middle of a great sea are in any case not worth fighting a war over. Thucydides and Hobbes would pronounce him wrong. They would say that it is the perceived rise of Chinese sea power -- and the alarm that it inspires among America's formal allies and de facto allies -- that, in turn, could be the real cause of conflict sometime over the coming decade. Thus, the features in the South China Sea, as important as they might be, would merely be the pretext.
Indeed, nobody would prefer to say they are provoking a conflict because of rising Chinese sea power; rather, they would say they are doing so because of this or that infringement of maritime sovereignty over this or that islet. All the rest might have to be conjectured.
The same is true with the conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Even if one argues that these islets are worthless, he or she would miss the point. Rather, the dispute over these islets is a pretext for the rise of Chinese sea power and the fear that it inspires in Japan, helping to ease Japan out of its quasi-pacifistic shell and rediscover nationalism and military power. (And by the way, the rise of Chinese sea power does not mean that China is able to engage the U.S. Navy in fleet-on-fleet battle. It only means, for example, that China can use the placement of warship patrols, along with economic and diplomatic pressure and the staging of protests at home, all together in a series of "combination punches" to undermine the Japanese and other East Asian rivals.)
Then there is North Korea. With a gross domestic product of only that of Latvia or Turkmenistan, it might be assumed to be another worthless piece of real estate. Geography tells a different story. Jutting out from Manchuria, the Korean Peninsula commands all maritime traffic in northeastern China and traps in its armpit the Bohai Sea, home to China's largest offshore oil reserve. China, as I've previously written, favors an economic takeover of the Tumen River region -- where China, North Korea and Russia intersect, with good port facilities fronting Japan. The fate of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula will help determine power relationships throughout northeastern Asia, therefore. Of course, all of this, as Thucydides and Hobbes would say, would have to be inferred, conjectured. North Korea's erratic behavior could start a conflict, but the causes might also lie elsewhere.
India and China have territorial tripwires in the Himalayan foothills, an area which, again, might be judged by some as worthless. But these tripwires become more meaningful as India partially shifts its defense procurements away from confronting Pakistan and towards confronting China. It is doing so because the advance of technology has created a new and claustrophobic strategic geography uniting India and China, with warships, fighter jets and space satellites allowing each country to infringe on the other's battlespace. If a conflict ever does erupt between these two demographic and economic behemoths, it probably will not be because of the specific reasons stated but because of these deeper geographical and technological causes.
As for India and Pakistan, I remember decades ago sitting with a group of journalists in Peshawar, reading about Pakistani and Indian troops confronting each other on the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir, terrain so high the troops had to wear oxygen masks. Could such territory be worth fighting over? Again, the conflicting claims were merely symptomatic of a deeper dispute over the very legitimacy of these states arising out of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
Of course, Israel fears for its own survival, were Iran to develop a deployable nuclear bomb. This is a case where the start of a conflict (by the United States, acting as Israel's proxy) may largely overlap with its cause. Nevertheless, Israel has other fears that are less frequently expressed. For example, a nuclear Iran would make every crisis between Israel and Hezbollah, between Israel and Hamas, and between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians more fraught with risk. Israel cannot accept such augmentation of Iranian power. That could signal the real cause of a conflict, were Israel ever able to drag the United States into a war with Iran.
In all these cases, and others, the most profound lesson of Thucydides and Hobbes is to concentrate on what goes unstated in crises, on what can only be deduced. For the genius of analysis lies in quiet deductions, not in the mere parroting of public statements. What starts conflicts is public, and therefore much less interesting -- and less crucial -- than the causes of conflicts, which are not often public.