January 9, 2014
Dangerous Acrimony
By Ali Wyne
Contributing Analyst, Wikistrat

The territorial dispute between China and Japan has grown more acrimonious, and there is worry that it may grow into a serious regional conflict. As 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, Harvard analyst Ali Wyne argues that although Asia won’t be the starting point of another world conflict, all sides should and must exercise serious restraint.

Will Asia succumb to internecine warfare a mere century after Europe did? Most observers would argue that this outcome is extremely improbable, but not inconceivable. When I asked the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal to estimate the likelihood of a clash between China and Japan over the next five years, he replied, “Not zero, which is enough to be worrying.”

In November, China declared an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) that covers territory also claimed by Japan, including the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (which China calls the Diaoyu Islands). This is China’s latest effort to strengthen its maritime claims in the Asia-Pacific.

As seen in its interac- tions with Vietnam and the Philippines, China has also applied persistent bilateral pressure to resolve maritime disputes in its favor.

In May 2009, China’s ambassador to the United Nations sent UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a note claiming “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.” Attached was a map that reproduced China’s self-declared “nine-dash line,” encompassing some 80 percent of the South China Sea. As seen in its interactions with Vietnam and the Philippines, China has also applied persistent bilateral pressure to resolve maritime disputes in its favor.

Three days after China announced its ADIZ, the United States deployed two B-52 bombers to the zone without notifying China, and on December 5, a U.S. Navy warship and a Chinese vessel nearly collided in the South China Sea.

On December 17, Japan released its first national-security strategy, in which it pledged to “respond firmly but in a calm manner” to China’s “attempts to change the status quo by coercion…which are incompatible with…international law.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in October that China would not “be able to emerge peacefully” unless it changed course.

Tensions continue to escalate. What happens if China shoots down a Japanese drone that enters its ADIZ, or vice versa? Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng has warned that China would treat the latter incident as “an act of war” and “take firm countermeasures.” What then?

Thankfully, there are many compelling grounds for optimism. For one thing, it is likely that any “war” between China and Japan would actually consist of one or more contained confrontations, with little military power employed and few, if any, casualties.

Second, however much the traumas of the past might color their relationship, the growth in their economic interdependence continues apace. Richard Katz argues that “Chinese-Japanese economic relations…are set to get better” because of “the economic reality that China needs Japan just as much as Japan needs China.”

Finally, the United States would almost certainly intervene in the event of a Sino–Japanese clash. China and Japan understand that no good can conceivably come from tumult between the world’s three largest economies (which accounted for 42 percent of gross world product in 2012), two of which have nuclear weapons.

Why, then, do Segal and others maintain the possibility of a Sino–Japanese clash?

First, impulse can prevail over even the most considered cost–benefit analysis.

China, Japan, and potential interlocu- tors should not focus on avoiding a trigger whose nature and time cannot be predicted.

Second, it is impossible to know what event might propel tensions beyond the reach of restraint. (No one can explain why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, rather than any number of other flashpoints, was the immediate precursor to World War I – hence the analytical folly of saying that it “caused” the outbreak of hostilities.) China, Japan, and potential interlocutors should not focus on avoiding a trigger whose nature and time cannot be predicted. Instead, they should focus on reversing the trends that increase the likelihood that such a trigger will happen in the first place.

Third, the present Sino–Japanese strategic balance is unusual. As the Economist noted recently, “East Asia has never before had a strong China and a strong Japan at the same time.” Japan is unlikely to acquiesce to the restoration of Chinese centrality in the region.

Fourth, the Asia-Pacific has been unable to establish a shared purpose and vision. Historic antagonisms among China, Japan, and South Korea are always close to the surface. (Witness the anger that Abe’s ill-advised December 26 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine elicited in China). The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meanwhile, fear that they will have to “choose” between the United States and China in due course. The existence of the European Union serves to constrain any member country that would countenance another Great Power conflict in Eurasia, but no comparable Asian community has emerged.

While it is most likely that China and Japan will not go to war, the possibility could hang over the Asia-Pacific like a sword of Damocles, preventing the region from devoting necessary energy to challenges such as environmental degradation and resource shortages. Even if war does not occur, moreover, sustained tension – between the United States and China, and between China and Japan – could undermine cooperation between the United States and China as well as nascent efforts to form the skeleton of an Asian community.

Photo credit: Emily Wang/Associated Press

Ali WyneAli Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a former associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs . He is a co-author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.