Could a few tiny islets in the East China Sea help light the fire that sparks a wider conflagration in East Asia? What about preventive strikes on North Korean nuclear and missile sites? A collision near one of Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea?
An influential Harvard scholar who literally wrote the book on the chances of a U.S. war with China believes these are all possibilities — and ones that would also pull in Japan.
Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”, sat down with The Japan Times for a wide-ranging interview in Tokyo earlier this month to discuss the role the disputed Senkaku Islands and North Korean nukes could play in triggering a Sino-U.S. conflict, and how such an event would affect Japan.
In his book, Allison uses Greek historian Thucydides’s study of the Peloponnesian War to analyze the odds of military conflict between a rising power and an established dominant power. Identifying 16 such encounters over the past 500 years, he found that 12 of them ended in conflict — painting a gloomy picture of the future of Sino-U.S. relations, with Japan caught squarely in the middle.
Allison calls Tokyo a “prominent player” in the region, and one that could play a crucial role in either stoking or preventing war.
“Of the parties who have stakes in what’s happening in the relationship with the U.S. and China who are big enough to do anything about it, I think Japan is the most obvious,” said Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense and adviser to the Pentagon.
Among the various flash points, perhaps the most well-known are the Senkakus, a grouping of several tiny, uninhabited barren islands administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, where they are known as Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively.
With ownership long disputed between the Asian rivals, the islands, part of Okinawa Prefecture, were effectively nationalized by the Japanese government in September 2012, in a move that deeply angered China. The decision to buy three of the five islets from the private owner left Beijing fuming, despite being widely seen as an attempt to stave off their purchase by a group led by Tokyo’s nationalist governor at the time, Shintaro Ishihara.
Since then, Beijing has ratcheted up its moves near the islets. In 2013, it labeled the islands a “core interest” — a term Beijing usually uses when addressing such issues as Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea. In the ensuing years, it has also sent a steady stream of coast guard vessels, government-backed “maritime militia” fishing ships and occasionally military vessels into the area.
This has set the stage for the possibility of an accidental — or even premeditated — clash in the waters, according to many observers, including Allison.
“The ways in which small, insignificant territories can become big issues for government and especially for a domestic population and politics is puzzling,” said Allison, “because from a very realist point of view, if you said ‘What is the value to Japan of the Senkaku Islands?’ . . . or ‘What is value to China?’ . . . it would not be very valuable if it were a real estate deal.”
“But historically, nations have gone to war over inconsequential territorial claims,” he added. “In domestic politics, particularly, unexpected events or initiatives by third parties can inflame a smouldering situation.”
Allison offered up a comparison to the events leading up to World War I, where a dangerous dynamic exists between a rising and a ruling power, and third-party actions or unintended events that would otherwise be manageable “can become a spark in which one of the major parties feels obliged to react.”
“The classic case is obviously 1914 and the assassination of Archduke (Ferdinand), and afterward, you say, ‘What the hell happened?’ ” Allison said.
In the case of the Senkakus, he said, “it’s not hard to think of a dozen versions” in which the powder keg could erupt into a skirmish, be it a miscalculation or outright fight between the Chinese and Japanese — and, ultimately, since the U.S. is obliged to defend Japan under Article 5 of the allies’ Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, a wider conflict.
Allison said the Senkakus, which were under U.S. control after World War II from 1945 until 1972, when the islands returned to Japanese control under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, have left the U.S. in a tough spot.
“I don’t believe the people who returned Okinawa to Japan had thought at all about a little tail of islands that came with it and what the consequences of that might be,” he said. “If they had, they might have had a different view.”
Now, said Allison, if China were to attack Japan over a dispute in the Senkakus, the U.S. military “would be right alongside” the Self-Defense Forces.
“And from my experience in the Department of Defense, I would say we not only have said that, we mean it and we plan and exercise on that basis,” he said.
Another scenario that troubles Allison because it similarly casts a shadow of war is North Korea.
The breakneck speed at which the regime of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un has made improvements in its nuclear weapons and missile programs — and threatened Japan, South Korea and the U.S. in the process — has dominated headlines over the last year.
Kim’s missile breakthroughs and vows never to part with his “treasured nuclear sword” have stirred fears of a second Korean War.
Indeed, said Allison, “if Thucydides were casting this movie, and he were looking for the third-party provocateur, you couldn’t find anyone more well-suited than Kim Jong Un.”
But on this issue, Allison sees a surprising ray of hope in mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump.
“He starts from a low base of knowledge,” said Allison. But “on the other hand, he succeeded in getting elected president,” he said. “How did he do that? There has got to be some skill or savvy there. The ‘fire and fury’ line that says this guy is a dope or a madman or a know-nothing — that’s not right.”
When it comes to North Korea, the crisis that has most vexed the White House since Trump’s swearing-in, the president has at times vacillated from offering to have a meal with leader Kim Jong Un to threatening to destroy his regime.
But on this issue, Trump may actually have some latitude for unorthodox maneuvering that other presidents did not, said Allison.
“You could actually imagine him thinking, ‘I’ll sit down for a hamburger with Kim Jong Un,’ ” he said. “He might find his way to a deal.”
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