Sino-Japanese tensions more a matter of muscle-flexing than a lead-up to war
Opinion: China and South Korea remain angry at Japan’s refusal to face up to its past
A bunch of strategically and economically insignificant rocks. Photograph: AP
There’s a peculiarly old-fashioned quality to the dispute that last week escalated sharply over islands in the East China Sea known in Japan as the Senkaku and in China as the Diaoyu. In these days of terrorism, cyberattacks, and asymmetric warfare, we have a cold war-era struggle over a bunch of strategically and economically insignificant rocks, between great power China, and Japan, with its joined-at-the-hip ally, the US. (The latter is treaty-bound to protect Japan if under attack.)
And fears being spread again in the international media that echo the Cuban missile crisis 50 years ago, or the slide into the first World War 100 years ago – oh, the symbolic power of anniversaries! – that military brinkmanship or posturing could lead to accidental misunderstandings and the triggering of automatic escalating responses, and a major confrontation
Or war. The Financial Times’s respected columnist Martin Wolf was even drawn to speculate about what would happen, God forbid, if the worst happened: “Military experts assume that in a head-on conflict China would lose. While its economy has grown dramatically, it is still smaller than that of the US, let alone of the US and Japan together. Above all, the US still controls the seas. If open conflict arrived, the US could cut off the world’s trade with China. It could also sequester a good part of China’s liquid foreign assets. The economic consequences would be devastating for the world, but they would, almost certainly, be worse for China than for the US and its allies.”
Whoa there. Let’s get real before we scare the living daylights out of readers who have only just heard about a bit of sabre rattling in the Pacific, and now, Armageddon discussed as a real prospect . . . but, as even Wolf admits, “Such an event is far from inevitable. It is not even likely [my emphasis]. But it is not impossible and it is more likely than it was . . . ”
So what are the Chinese up to? In last week it declared an “air defence identification zone” – 600 miles north to south, above waters separating China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, including the disputed islands – which requires aircraft to notify its air traffic control of passage. In doing so, Beijing significantly stepped up the rhetoric in a territorial dispute that has run noisily with Japan since 2008 and quietly for many years longer.
Its actions reflect above all, not a concern for the rocks themselves, but a determination, apparently driven by President Xi Jinping himself, to project a new face of growing Chinese maritime power. Effectively, as US secretary of defence, Robert M Gates, has complained, pushing the US out to “the second island chain”, out in the Pacific, keeping its air and naval assets ever further from the region around China’s coast. If, that is, the US complies, which it shows no intention of so doing.