A decade of boots-on-the-ground warfare in the Middle East does not, in late December, appear to have done much

to spread democracy or tolerance across the region or indeed to quell the sources of terrorism. Syria, Libya and Egypt waver between rule by more or less secular strongmen and takeover by Islamic radicals. Overwatch by fighters, helicopters and surface-to-air missiles is now a routine feature of global sporting events as well as G20 meetings.

On the other side of the globe, however, tensions are reminding many observers of the machinations that preceded previous industrial-age wars such as World War 1. China's declaration of an air defense identification zone was remarkable not so much for its direct impact as for the fact that it took observers by surprise.

That is a strong indicator of regional tension and potential instability. While China's armed forces are strong and growing rapidly, symbolized by China's first aircraft carrier, the ex-Russian Liaoning (see photo) its smaller regional rivals are also heavily armed and have much longer experience in high-technology warfare. China has relatively recently emerged from decades of infantry-dominated “people's war” and, until a few years ago, had virtually no experience of training and exercising with other nations' forces.

But it is exactly that kind of qualitative difference in the balance of forces that increases the risk of miscalculation. This is particularly the case when one side controls its media and public expression more tightly than the other. Chinese defense managers, commanders and leaders can read global media (and study their intelligence reports) and read about China's growing strength and the need to develop doctrines, such as Air-Sea Battle, and improve technologies (ballistic missile defense, for instance) to counter their expansion. This selective view tends to downplay the current strength of other regional actors.

On the other hand, Chinese citizens and political actors see a carefully stage-managed picture of their own strength, via deliberate Internet leaks and state-run media. The result is pressure on the military to show and, if necessary, use its strength to assert regional presence.

Consequently, there is high risk in 2014 of some kind of confrontation in the oceans around China. Modern sea warfare is complex and fast-moving, and battle groups can find themselves within weapon range of one another quickly and unexpectedly. Commanders have to take decisions concerning the safety of their own forces; links to shore may not be available and superior commanders on land, beyond the horizon, do not have access to a tactical picture.

This is part, too, of a shift back toward concerns about long-range warfare. Involvement in low- to medium-intensity internal operations, as the last decade has shown, is costly and highly uncertain, with uncertainty increasing over time.

However, the means of long-range warfare and systems to defend against it continue to become more sophisticated. A key case in 2014 will be how the international community deals with overtly nuclear North Korea and covertly nuclear Iran. So far, only one country (Sweden) has had a well advanced nuclear weapons program and given it up under pressure; other nuclear powers have retained that status.

A nuclear deal may not be the end of the process, however. Uzi Rubin, a player in the development of Israel's missile defenses, noted in an interview in Washington in 2013 that the basics of missile guidance technology (navigation and attitude reference) are now built into millions of phones and tablets so that conventional-warhead ballistic missiles can now be aimed at military targets, civilian infrastructure and public buildings, and programmed to perform evasive maneuvers.

Guided missiles could take the place of strike aircraft more widely—in the same way that China's anti-ship ballistic missile system has emerged as the bogeyman of Pacific conflict, but more so, since land targets are more easily located.

Notably, one of very few all-new weapons deployed in quantity by Russia since the early 1990s is the Iskander tactical missile. As currently deployed, the Iskander-E export model is detuned to stay within Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) range and warhead-size limits (as is its Chinese analog, the M-20 or DF-12), but the MTCR is coming under increasing pressure because it did not anticipate unmanned air systems. Changes may be necessary, and those leave it open to reinterpretation or collapse.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is embroiled in a doctrinal debate that centers on the role of land forces and is defined by four factors. The defense budget is entering a downturn—unsurprisingly, since it has been running at record levels. Despite the fact that the U.S. military is often criticized for favoring technology over people, the budget itself is squeezed most of all by personnel costs. In the long term, the Pentagon needs to operate with fewer troops or more money, and the latter appears unobtainable. The public and policymakers alike are weary of land war after the longest such engagement in U.S. history. However, land-war commanders have no interest in a major contraction of their forces.

The result is an intraservice argument starring advocates of “strategic landpower”—a vision of a near-permanent state of simmering global involvement—versus advocates of an arm's-length strategy focused on traditional national interest and the preservation of the global commons. But the hard fact is that events in 2014 could easily render that discussion moot, if the East China Sea should boil over.