As Chinese maritime vessels continue to enter the Senkaku Islands’ waters, there is continued focus on the tense state of Sino-Japanese relations.
The Senkakus (Diaoyu in Chinese) themselves are worth little. Even if their petroleum resources turn out to be significant, the gains would be microscopic relative to China’s gross domestic product. Their military value is marginal. They have played no role in Chinese history, so they lack symbolic significance.
They are, however, geopolitically important in the context of Sino-American rivalry. The United States treats them de facto as Japanese territory. Because Japan is one of America’s few vital allies, provoking Japan over the Senkakus is tantamount to picking a fight with the U.S..
Yet, China has mobilized countless Chinese government patrol boats that routinely enter Senkaku waters, and Beijing puts economic pressure on Japan through various obstacles to commerce.
Moreover, the Senkaku tensions come in the wake of Chinese actions that have raised alarm bells in the U.S. These include reports of massive Chinese hacking, confrontations with Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea, a perceived lack of Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea and Iran, and the detention of prominent human rights activists.
So far, China has not crossed any red lines such as landing troops on the islands or firing at Japanese Coast Guard cutters. Japan, on its side, has tolerated penetrations of Senkaku territorial waters. Still, with hostile ships and aircraft operating in confined spaces, accidents could happen. Unintentional collisions can kill sailors, an incompetent man can fire a weapon, airplanes can collide and helicopters can crash into ships’ masts by mistake.
Japan and the U.S. would do almost anything, including losing face, to avoid war under these circumstances. But what about China? Beijing could think that backing off is not option and escalate the confrontation. Moreover, we do not know how effective Chinese command and control is. If they are not, hotheaded local skippers or pilots could initiate an explosive chain reaction.
Chinese policymakers may interpret the forbearance shown by Japan and, by implication, the U.S. as signs of weakness. This could lead to more assertive Chinese challenges such as landing forces in the Senkakus. Setting foot on the islets would elicit the forceful eviction of these intruders by the Japanese authorities, forcing China to chose between the humiliation of retreat or resorting to military force.
Already, as a result of the Senkaku crisis, the U.S. and Japan are investing more in preparing for war with the People’s Republic. Japanese and Americans who advocate moderation look like appeasers. China’s conduct reinforces worries in Southeast Asia and India about Chinese intentions. It must alarm Russia, whose Far East is vulnerable to Chinese inroads. Beijing is laying the groundwork for a broad anti-Chinese coalition.
Why is Beijing acting in such a way?
Possibly it sees the U.S. in terminal decline. Leaders might feel that the “Chinese street” will reward their patriotic zeal. Fueling nationalist passions helps focus popular anger away from domestic ills. A divided leadership may be jockeying for positions using the Senkakus to gain influence. Or maybe Beijing is testing the waters, blind to the actual risks of conflict with America.
The U.S. and Japan can ignore Chinese activities. Washington and Tokyo are in the easier position of defending the status quo. If Beijing is just being clumsy due to internal problems, then patience and maybe a few concessions could work. It would buy time until the China embarks on a more peaceful path.
However, if China is bent on violently altering the world order, a forceful reaction now may be the best option. Otherwise, Beijing will interpret American and Japanese forbearance as a green light to take steps that will lead to actual combat. But what such a reaction should be will require a lot of careful thinking.
Shakespeare’s Henry V warned his advisers to “take heed; For never two such kingdoms did contend Without much fall of blood.” War between China and a U.S.-Japan team could be relatively bloodless, but it could also be calamitous.
But Washington and Tokyo have only a limited capacity to influence events. If China grows more bellicose, the dogs of war will be unleashed.
Robert Dujarric is director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. (firstname.lastname@example.org).