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War with China is not inevitable, so tread carefully

by Michael Sutton

Special To The Japan Times

There are dangers for the United States and Japan in underestimating or confronting China. The Abe government’s interest in changing the postwar Japanese Constitution threatens relations not only with China but also with the U.S.

Despite the optimists, military conflict in the region would be uncontainable. Any form of confrontation involving China would likely spiral out of control and engulf the entire region, if not the world.

Since the Liberal Democratic Party was last in power, the world has profoundly changed. The first noticeable change is that the U.S. is in serious, perhaps irretrievable trouble. Much has been said about how the Chinese giant awoke and arose, but much less has been said about what happens when the U.S. giant stumbles and falls.

The decline of the U.S. has sent shock waves around the world, and even America’s enemies shudder. The cumulative effects of poor financial decisions, social fragmentation, national debt and overseas conflict have taken their toll, injecting a profound and deleterious sense of uncertainty.

The second noticeable change is the immaturity of Chinese ambition. China has risen during a time of peace. U.S.-sanctioned free trade underpinned this success. Instead, Beijing talks of islands, oceans, and territories in terms of rights to ownership. This reflects an immature China that coexists alongside a confident, global-oriented China. Politically, Chinese leadership is dysfunctional.

China has effectively dominated the global economy, but it seems obsessed with a few islands of minimal value in the East and South China Seas.

Both the uncertain path ahead for the U.S. and the immature ambitions of China threaten the future of Japan. Changing the Constitution would inject further uncertainty into an already tense region.

Article 9 of Japan’s postwar Constitution is both an anachronism and a sincere affirmation of national pacifism. Changing Article 9 to mirror contemporary realities is driven by a view to return Japan to the status of a “normal country.”

But what is “normal?” Japan certainly isn’t. The pacifism of the Constitution is unique and reflects the horrors and tragedies of the Pacific War.

Even with an altered constitution, Japan remains an essentially “occupied” country in the sense that it appears unable to make major decisions on its future without deference to the U.S. on the one hand and fear of China on the other.

The nature of this occupation goes beyond the strategic presence of the U.S. military. “Operation Tomodachi” following the 2011 tsunami reflected this unusual relationship between Japan and the U.S. The unfolding catastrophe provoked genuine goodwill, sympathy and concern for the Japanese on the part of the U.S. forces stationed in Japan. Apparently U.S. forces did not wait for Japanese approval to undertake rescue missions.

It is important to note and affirm this genuine affection. While Japan is still at one level “occupied” by a foreign power, it is difficult to escape the view that the long history of U.S. bases in Japan has led to a mutually beneficial relationship. This unusual relationship is proof that the U.S. has no intention of leaving Japan. The U.S. knows full well that in the event of Chinese aggression over territorial claims, its bases in Japan could be targeted. If this occurs, it is doubtful containment is relevant.

It is well known that Japan has a sophisticated, well-equipped, well-staffed and competent national military called the Self-Defense Force. At the same time, the sentiment and the assumptions underlying Article 9 are still valid, not least from an interpretation of history. History needs to be affirmed. There is no reason why the reality of defense and the idealism of peace need not coexist.

Sadly it may be too late to prevent the outbreak of conflict involving China and some of its neighbors. Poor leadership in Beijing has led to a number of tense territorial claims. Chinese economic success has inspired jealousy in the region and overconfidence within China. Money isn’t everything.

Political elites may be capable of organizing anti-Japan riots but have failed to manage the politics of global ambition.

That said, Washington and Tokyo are not without blame, with China policy marginalized by pressing domestic problems. Much more could have been done to dampen enthusiasm for a confrontation, and historians no doubt will write much about the path to conflict.

History reminds us that the origins of the Pacific War included the attempted containment of Japan through an oil and steel embargo a few months before Pearl Harbor. Containment doesn’t work. It would be tragic if the U.S. and Japan go down a similar path with China by pushing Beijing into a corner.

It is far better to urge cooperation with China rather than pursue a regional arms race that can only lead to conflict.

Michael Sutton, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the WTO Research Center in Tokyo (eastasiandemography@gmail.com).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1295828275 Thorfinn Olsen

    Do not underestimate that we are all customers of China.
    And it hurts business a lot if a company kills it’s customers
    so I don’t think China is a great danger for us.
    But China has bought most of our planet’s most valued resources
    and this might endanger a lot of multinational companies and this
    might lead to a war with China, not for political reasons but for
    the loss of profit of a lot of big companies (Better dead than broke) ????

  • http://twitter.com/JCdollar1 JCdollar

    When US transfer administrative right to Japan of Senkaku Islands, the sovereignty right didn’t not come with it. In fact, US has taken no position of the sovereignty of the Islands, since.

    There is no legal basis for Japan to claim sovereignty of the Islands.

    To blame China immaturity on the disputes reflects immaturity of Japan herself.

    Quite oppositely, since the rise of China, she is willing to share disputed areas with not only Japan, but also with other neighbours.

    It is a very mature thinking with beyond time and space significance, as significant as the Chinese forgiving of Japan for war compensations.

    Japan and China must strike a friendly deal on the dispute so both can focus on big picture of common interests.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kris.ketterman.1 Kris Ketterman

      “since the rise of China, she is willing to share disputed areas with not only Japan, but also with other neighbours.” LOL. You mean like *seizing Scarborough Shoal from the Phillippines last year? You mean like gobbling up Tibet through deception and essentially occupying it for 60 years? Or maybe you mean like trying to occupy the Senkaku/Diayou’s? Yeah, China really plays well with its neighbors. China is building its own encirclement because of how it treats its neighbors. Even communist Vietnam is cozying up to the US these days.

      • http://twitter.com/JCdollar1 JCdollar

        PH only claimed the Scarborough Shoal in 2009, through RA 9522, against her own constitutional treaty, the Treaty of Paris, in which it clearly states that the Scarborough Shoal be outside of PH territory.

        It was also PH who send a warship into the Scarborough Shoal area last April to cause a conflict, intentionally and calculated.

      • Testerty

        1) It was Philippine that withdrew from the trilateral (China, Vietnam, Philippine) cooperation and exploitation of South China Sea in 2008, which is causing problem.

        2) Tibet has been ruled by China for 600 years, not 60. Even the Dali Lama is a title given by China.

        3) Diayou Island was purchased by Japanese business from Taiwan, just like you can buy a property in Taiwan. But that does not entitle the property to be nationalized by a foreign government.

      • awesome

        india gave china buddhism not just a title,will it make india the owner/master of china or tibet?? and kris,you are forgetting their claim over indian state of “arunachal pradesh” and illegal occupation of a big part of jammu and kashmir.

      • Testerty

        Buddhism came from Nepal, not India. Since when did Nepal become India?
        Indian invade Tibet under British, so naturally China had to defend its province.

      • awesome

        thats what they teach you in china about buddhism?? tibet a province of china?? but Tibetans says otherwise.

  • Far East

    China “seems obsessed with a few islands of minimal value in the East and South China Seas.”?

    As a researcher, I encourage you to dig a bit more on the underlying motivation to seize this Japanese territory.
    And the real goal is to seize the underground resources those Senkakus islands have. That’s right, a United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) ( http://www.unescap.org ) report in 1969 stated there is a strong possibility for petroleum and natural gas to be under those islands. Foreign estimates of potential oil reserves on the shelf have gone as high as 100 billion barrels. (Saudi Arabia has “proven and probable” oil reserves of 261.7 billion barrels and the United States 22 billion). The following year, China started claiming the Senkaku islands as theirs.

    The most promising area identified was “a 200,000 square kilometer area just north of Taiwan, or almost exactly the location” of the Senkaku islands. See K.O. Emery et al., Geological Structure and Some Water Characteristics of the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, 2 UNECAFE/CCOP TECH. BULL. 3 (1969). A copy of the ECAFE report is available here: http://www.gsj.jp/data/ccop-bull/2-01.pdf

    The report concludes on page 41 “A high probability exists that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in the world.”

    Talk about hypocrisy….

    • http://twitter.com/JCdollar1 JCdollar

      Potsdam Dclaration:

      1. the elimination “for all time [of] the authority and influence of
      those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on
      world conquest”

      2. the occupation of “points in Japanese territory to be designated by the Allies”

      3. “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.”

      4. “The Japanese military forces shall be completely disarmed”

      5. “stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners”

      None of above have anything to do with your potential possibilities.

  • David Terrasidius

    Totally agree that it’s better to talk and have a dialogue than to just bully with sanctions.

  • venze

    Who says war with China is inevitable? Do not fan the fear of war on East Asians unnecessarily, just remind the US to maintain its sanity and stay calm. (mtd1943)

  • Tetsu

    Neither Chinese or Japanese leaders are simply acting “immaturely” as is rather thoughtlessly suggested. Each side acts on strategic necessities that dictate the courses of actions available at given circumstances and time constraints.

    Chinese leaders know that they are running out of time. The current model of export-dependent economic growth based on cheap and abundant labor force at home and high consumption rate abroad has run its course. As the wages rise, the population plateaus and the global consumption declines for the long haul, the economic growth rate in China will inevitably slide, permanently. When the delivery of perpetual rise in living standard is the sole claim to legitimacy for the Communist Party rule, this downturn is an existential problem for the CCP. Increasingly coming up short on the impossible promise, the leaders are now keen to recast themselves as vanguard of Chinese sovereignty against real and perceived foreign threats. The Party now plays the redeemer of the Chinese civilization, recalling the strong and stable dynastic China of old, as Xi has done repeatedly recently. The narrative goes, China will never again suffer the humiliation of foreign invasions. China will control all the seas along its shores. China will reclaim its inherent and natural place at the center of Asian sphere. The primary audience for China’s ‘foreign’ policy as such, ironically, is its domestic populace. The Party is remarkably inward-looking, predominantly concerned with its own legitimacy and survival at home. China is not expansionist in a sense that European and Japanese empires were. China wants security and internal stability. China wants a modern blue navy that freely patrols its “territorial seas” to the exclusion of foreign navies. It wants wide swaths of area-of-denial buffer by coastal anti-ship missiles and overlapping radar coverages from newly captured outer-laying islands. It wants safe passages into deeper seas beyond the continental shelf for its submarine fleet. China wants to ink these on the map now while it still has the economic wind on its sails. Consequently, it has poured funds on the navy, and has largely given up on the “peaceful rise” approach with its neighbors. Thus seemingly expansionist in demeanor, China’s motives and instincts are overwhelmingly defensive, and it is by far the most insecure at home. China is not immature, but is constrained in its options and time domestically. Its tantrums, such as they are, are calculated moves to divert pressure and to break free of the constraints.

    Japanese has suffered two decades of economic stagnation and declining relevance in international affair, and realizes now that the economic power alone has not and will not ensure perpetual security and prosperity. Only by developing, maintaining and wielding political, economic and military powers intelligently and with balance will Japan have a viable future as an industrial economy and a technology leader, particularly with no domestic sources of energy and raw materials and declining demography. In the coming years Japan will by necessity seek to bolster the long and vulnerable sea lanes leading back to the Middle East alongside Americans. For this Japan will need mutual security alliances with strategic partners in South China Sea, through Malacca Strait, across Indian Ocean and into Arabian Sea. The alliances will necessarily call for Maritime Self-Defense Force to commit to collective defense of allied ships at high sea, training of partner navies’ personnel, and sales and transfer of weapons, equipment and technology to close and trusted allies. The domestic defense industry, in order to remain economically viable and technologically competitive, needs foreign customers beyond the limited domestic demands and foreign partners to co-develop new technology and systems. All of these are necessary, and all of these require revisions to the current pacifist constitution. 70 years of pacifist policy has been only possible on the back of unwavering American protection. Japan has focused on economic development in the meantime, achieving a degree of success. But that cycle has run its course now, leaving it politically weak on international stage in disproportion to its still significant economy. The Self-Defense Forces, while highly trained and well-equipped, remain disproportionately limited in size and mission capability relative to Japan’s far-flung national interests, with the voluntary defense spending cap of 1% GDP.

    It is not that by revising the constitution the inevitable pathway opens up to once again to wage futile and destructive wars for raw resources, labor and markets, as Japan had done across Asia-Pacific three generations ago. It is that a successful nation allies with other nations on the basis of mutual interests, to create a safe environment where everyone can thrive, providing mutual security guarantees, encouraging trading and investment, and sharing cultural influences in all directions among the peoples. Peace is prolonged by sharing benefits and responsibilities as equal partners, and is enforced by military alliances. Americans will remain our strongest ally, and Japan will be a more robust partner. There will be other strong partnerships all across Asia.

    As for the Senkaku dispute with China, it is ultimately not something that will decisively affect Japan’s strategic calculations on the constitutional revisions one way or the other. The scope of considerations are farther-reaching than a localized dispute with a neighbor, and Japan is unlikely to place its larger interests on hold. One hopes that peace prevails. Japan’s hands are constrained on the increasingly belligerent confrontations. The bottom line is that a nation cannot just give up an island to a hostile neighbor seeking to change a status quo by force, no matter what the claims are. Both sides should go to court, or there will be no winners. But that’s a can of worms for another time.

  • Rob Tuazon

    China-Japan, China-India, China-Vietnam, China-Philippine, China-Russia, China-Taiwan, China-Malaysia etc. The pattern here is clear.