This Sino–Japanese standoff also is a problem for the United States, which has a defense treaty with Tokyo and is pledged to come to the aid of Japanese forces under attack. There are also mechanisms for U.S.–Japanese consultations during a crisis, and if Tokyo requests such military talks, Washington would be forced into a difficult spot, since Beijing would undoubtedly perceive the holding of such talks as a serious provocation. The Obama administration has so far taken pains to stay neutral in the dispute; despite its rhetoric of “pivoting” to the Pacific, it has urged both sides to resolve the issue peacefully. Washington also has avoided any stance on the sovereignty of the Senkakus, supporting instead the status quo of Japanese administration of the islands. That may no longer suffice for Japan, however, since its government saw China’s taking to the air over the Senkakus as a significant escalation and proof that Beijing is in no mind to back down from its claims.
One does not have to be an alarmist to see real dangers in play here. As Barbara Tuchman showed in her classic The Guns of August, events have a way of taking on a life of their own (and one doesn’t need a Schlieffen Plan to feel trapped into acting).The enmity between Japan and China is deep and pervasive; there is little good will to try and avert conflict. Indeed, the people of both countries have abysmally low perceptions of the other. Since they are the two most advanced militaries in Asia, any tension-driven military jockeying between them is inherently destabilizing to the entire region.
Perhaps of even greater concern, neither government has shied away from its hardline tactics over the Senkakus, despite the fact that trade between the two has dropped nearly 4 percent since the crisis began in September. Most worrying, if the two sides don’t agree to return to the status quo ante, there are only one or two more rungs on the ladder of military escalation before someone has to back down or decide to initiate hostilities when challenged. Whoever does back down will lose an enormous amount of credibility in Asia, and the possibility of major domestic demonstrations in response.
The prospect of an armed clash between Asia’s two largest countries is one that should bring both sides to their senses, but instead the two seem to be maneuvering themselves into a corner from which it will be difficult to escape. One trigger-happy or nervous pilot, and Asia could face its gravest crisis perhaps since World War II.
— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.