Many have been watching the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea with growing trepidation. Most recently, Japan claimed the right to fire warning shots at Chinese military aircraft near the islands - known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan – while a Chinese general warned that this would simply start a for-real shooting war. The United States is obligated under a security treaty with Japan to defend the islands if it comes to war.
So, seriously, are we about to end up in a hot war with China?
I doubt it. Recent writing about the grave consequences of such a war has in many cases ignored the fact that all the parties and players know those consequences. Take the latest at TomDispatch, by Michael Klare, as an example.
With so much of the world’s trade focused on Asia, and the American, Chinese, and Japanese economies tied so closely together in ways too essential to ignore, a clash of almost any sort in these vital waterways might paralyze international commerce and trigger a global recession (or worse).
All of this should be painfully obvious and so rule out such a possibility — and yet the likelihood of such a clash occurring has been on the rise in recent months, as China and its neighbors continue to ratchet up the bellicosity of their statements and bolster their military forces in the contested areas. Washington’s continuing statements about its ongoing plans for a “pivot” to, or “rebalancing” of, its forces in the Pacific have only fueled Chinese intransigence and intensified a rising sense of crisis in the region. Leaders on all sides continue to affirm their country’s inviolable rights to the contested islands and vow to use any means necessary to resist encroachment by rival claimants. In the meantime, China has increased the frequency and scale of its naval maneuvers in waters claimed by Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, further enflaming tensions in the region.
The “worse”, of course, being a conventional or even nuclear war between superpowers.
However, the US ‘pivot’, while admittedly seen by China as an attempt at Cold War style containment, isn’t even off the ground yet – many observers question whether it ever will be, in any meaningful way – and US diplomats are also hard at work behind the scenes trying to defuse the powderkeg. China’s military is rising in influence again but is still clearly and definitely under the control of the new leader and the Party, who would rather trade their way to pre-eminence than fight their way there. And, despite nationalistic rhetoric from Japan’s new rightwing government, they can see which side their bread is buttered on too.
A member of Japan’s coalition government arrived in Beijing on Tuesday carrying a letter for the head of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, from the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to try to help calm the escalating dispute between the two countries over contested islands in the East China Sea, Japanese officials said.
Many have said the disputes over these and other islands in the East and South China Seas are all about energy resources – oil and gas reserves. However, Robert Manning at The New Atlanticist notes that estimates of reserves in the area wildly differ by as much as 100 times, so that the winners of these disputes may get “exactly zilch” and “in any case, exploiting what resources exist will require legal and political certainty and stability”. Meanwhile, the $20 trillion a year Asian economy is very real and very certain to collapse if there’s a war.
In international disputes with such massive possible downsides, “Archduke Ferdinand” moments are far rarer than just muddling through. The U.S. and its allies will continue to pressure China to arbitrate disputes in international courts and by multi-partisan negotiations – but even if China refuses to play that game it is not impossible or impractical to pursue containment by conceding China its “near abroad” as the US and allies once conceded to the Soviets. The Chinese would still need international partners to exploit any resource wealth, and that’d be the thin edge of a capitalist wedge useful in its own right for defusing future risks of war. The shape of the not-war may be more or less like the Cold War depending upon how matters evolve, but not-war is still far more likely than war.