Commentary: Is East Asia the next political hotspot?

TOKYO — We Americans looked on with awe and admiration as Egyptians, Libyans and others took to the streets to demand their freedoms. Their battles have meant angry confrontations and bloodshed.

The reverberations have been felt in the United States in a variety of ways. The U.S. led a United Nations effort to provide military support for the Libyan rebels. Critics have called the U.S. participation an act of war. In Charlotte and across the nation, corporate anxiety over those uprisings contributed to soaring gasoline prices.

But smoldering discontent isn't unique to the Middle East. Political leaders and experts see the part of East Asia where I'm traveling as an East-West Center Jefferson Fellow as the next potential hotspot. In fact, the Obama administration has made the region a priority. It has boosted the military's presence and President Obama is expected to be one of the few non-Asian players attending the Sixth East Asia Summit this fall in Indonesia.

It's little surprise Obama would want to be there. Security and economic development in East Asia are in the United States' interests. North Korea provides a clear menace to the region. Last year, the country was believed to have sunk a South Korean warship and lobbed missiles against the South Korean people, killing 50 people. On June 8, South Korea accused the North of launching another.

Experts predict South Korea will retaliate if it is further provoked. Ralph Cossa, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it this way: "South Korea is not going to turn the other cheek again. If North Korea does something again, someone will die."

The region is riddled with other potential hotspots. Malaysia and Singapore could be ripe for revolts, taking heart from the new democracy in Indonesia. Places like Timor-Leste, Bangladesh, Fiji and the Philippines, which have experienced coups or coup attempts, remain volatile as well.

Then there's China, whose economic growth has been accompanied by aggressive fights for land and waterways with its neighbors. And because China's economic boom left millions out, it has widened income inequalities and led to public discontent. Chinese leaders are extremely worried about public uprisings and have cracked down on protests.

Smack in the middle of these issues is the U.S.-Japan alliance.

U.S. forces stationed in Japan, principally at Okinawa, have been key to providing security. The location offers a way to quickly respond to crises in the region, and not just militarily.

The region has been hit with major disasters that have demanded international help. Sixty percent of the world's disasters occur in this part of the world. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan is one example. The U.S. military is uniquely qualified to deal with such events quickly because of its ability to drop supplies and food from the air, Japanese officials say.

Still, U.S. military might is seen as a bulwark against threats in the region. Vietnam, South Korea and India appreciate the U.S. presence.

Japan also recognizes the power of that presence. Still, a big subject of debate during my visit has been the presence of military installations in Okinawa. There are 34 U.S. military facilities there. Many Okinawa residents protest the bases, citing safety and noise concerns. At least three aircraft have crashed there since the mid-1990s. A number of crimes, including rape and murder, have been committed by U.S. service members.

Against that backdrop, Okinawa officials have urged that one base, the Futenma Air Station, be relocated off the island. But the U.S. and Japanese governments have been working on moving it to another site on Okinawa.

Other critics think now would be a good time to push Japan into investing more in its own security. Japan spends less than one percent of its GDP on its defense, while most developed countries spend four percent or more.

But signs suggest the East Asia region is becoming more volatile. That could pose a greater threat to the U.S. than even Middle East volatility. Countries in the region view the U.S. military presence in Japan as a comforting one. Protests and financial concerns might not be enough to change that - and perhaps shouldn't be.