China’s rift with Japan is open challenge to U.S.


Special To The Japan Times

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. (robertdujarric@gmail.com).

  • Frank Wong

    China never want war with Japan and US. China want peace with Japan and US. As you said, the cost is not worth the benefit. The truth is they truly believe Japan is illegally taking the island. Japan should listen to their arguement. Even US said that the owership of the island is not settled. War is bad for everybody. This issue should be settle in peace as soon as possible.

    • Seprényi Gábor

      Noone wants a devastating war, everybody wants peace or easy wins. Even pre-WW1 European states, including Germany, never wanted a scale of destruction and bloodshed that happened between 1914 and 1918.

      You claim China is peaceful, I hope you are right, but in recent history the PRC militarily attacked India, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan.

      As for the Senkakus: making territorial claims based on 4-500-year-old maps is impossible to interpret or understand under the present framework of international law. It is like as if Italy was making territorial claims based on maps of the Roman Empire.

  • Yuling Jiang

    What are you talking about? What the US should do is to return China the Diaoyu Islands which were given to Japan many decades ago. How can the US GIVE away something which does not belong to them? Where is the justice?

    • Casper Steuperaert

      The Senkaku Islands were Terra Nullius. They always belonged to no-one before they belonged and still belong to Japan

  • even for all its progress and prosperity today
    china is nothing more than a spoiled child

    with little to no regard for human life not even of their own

    pollution and the lack of human rights are very clear examples of their lack of self restraint and irresponsibility to the earth and their fellow neighbors

    we can certainly expect some sort of large scale senseless confrontation

    Chinese government wouldn’t care less if they lost 1, 2 or even 100 million of its own people just to prove their point.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Geopolitical is the operative term here with respect to the USA, because it is the hegemonic machinations of the USA that would seem to be fueling the dispute.

    Contrary to the authors claims of “forbearance”, the Japanese have only become more aggressive in asserting their claims after gaining assurance from the USA that the islands (rocks) were covered by the mutual defense agreement.

    China’s historical claims have merit, and the matter should be adjudicated at the ICJ at the Hague.

  • China must look first to the mirror before they accusing Japan. China is the real trouble maker in Asia in modern times they grabbed shoal and islands from Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. Those shoal and island are 1,900 kilometers away from China.

  • 思德

    China is not stupid enough to provoke a conflict with America or Japan. They haven’t quite stolen and replicated enough technology from the US to take us on in a conventional war (although if we don’t shape up about our cyber defenses and start throwing some haymakers of our own we will have serious problems). Their deep water capabilities are null- particularly in the arena of defending against submarines. I am sure we are capable of launching conventional missiles from nuclear submarines that would cause significant trouble for the PRC. Our missile intercept technology is improving while they have none. That also means something. In the next decade or so, we will probably have hypersonic missiles that will be impossible to intercept except with lasers.

    China would not get involved in a cat and mouse game like this if their C&C were so bad as to allow one of their ships to open fire. They did admit to locking onto a Japanese ship with targeting radar. All they are doing is provoking, cajoling, taunting. They want to wear the Japanese down just like they wore the Philippines and Vietnam down, just like they are wearing Taiwan down. If Japan shot at them, they would love it- it would give them all the excuse they could ever want to perpetuate their anti-Japan propaganda and jingoism.

    But trouble is brewing at home, China is starting to have some growing pains, and sooner or later those internal problems are going to reach fruition. At that point, China is either going to have to commit to a conventional war that it will not only loose but will set back the modernization they crave- or lose face, turn inward, and give proper attention to those internal matters. There are Chinese people humble and honest enough to do that, I think; they’re just either overseas or not in power.

    China has always made people feel uneasy; but honestly I cannot think of a time where one country was more universally loathed than now. Except maybe by Pakistan- they like China’s help, I guess.

  • Seprényi Gábor

    This is a great article. It would be impossible to add anything to the analysis and arguments.

  • Dipak Bose

    Perhaps Japanese Imperial Army was correct. Since 1945 China has seen only violence and occupation of foreign lands by China: Formosa, Tibet, manchuria, Mongolia, East Turkistan, Parts of India about 20 percent of Jammu & Kashmir), parts of Russia, now areas of Vietnam, Philipines, Indonesia, Japan.
    Those who eat snakes, behave like snakes