It’s been easy of late to get hyperbolic about the chance of conflict in East Asia. China appears to be the first serious military challenger America has had since the Soviet Union, and it is clearly beginning to throw its weight around in the waters of Asia. Especially raising tensions in the region is a passel of territorial disputes over islets that has pitted China against countries in southeast and northeast Asia and put Japan at odds with all its major neighbors. But the one key disagreement is between Japan and China in the East China Sea. There, an archipelago called the Senkaku Islands is claimed by Japan, Taiwan, and China. The islands sit near rich undersea oil and gas deposits, but, being situated just northeast of Taiwan, they also are in a crucial strategic location. They form the southernmost link in a chain of islands (including Okinawa and others) held by Japan that separate the East China Sea from the Pacific. The chain that ends with the Senkakus thus acts as a defensive barrier that conceivably could be used to prevent Chinese naval vessels from entering the wider Pacific.
Thus, Japan’s control of the islands presents a problem for Beijing. The history is murky, but Japanese control really didn’t start until the late 19th century. In 1945, the U.S. took over the Senkakus, and it returned them (along with Okinawa) to Tokyo’s administrative control in 1972. In recent years, however, basically since oil and gas were discovered nearby, China has reasserted a historical claim to the islands. Since the possibility of extractable energy reserves was discovered a decade ago, both Japan and China have tussled over whose islands (and resources) they really are. Half-hearted attempts at joint explorations for oil and gas have foundered due to mistrust and nationalistic intransigence.
Then the situation exploded over the summer of 2012. Japan’s government, controlled by the now-opposition Democratic Party of Japan, decided to buy three of the islands from their private owner, in a bid to forestall Tokyo’s nationalistic governor from purchasing them for the metropolitan government. This set off massive protests across China and a several-week-long boycott of Japanese goods; major Japanese businesses operating in China temporarily closed their doors last autumn.
What was more dangerous, however, was a game of chicken that began in the waters off the Senkakus. Beijing dispatched private fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels on a near-daily basis to the islands, and Japan responded with its coast guard. The two countries have now faced off regularly in the waters around the Senkakus, sometimes with a dozen ships or more.
Beijing’s goal seems to be to undercut Tokyo’s claim of administrative control over the islands. That would then invalidate Japan’s right to expel ships from the exclusive economic zone around the Senkakus. In recent weeks, though, the Chinese have become more aggressive, and very visibly escalated tensions. For the first time ever, they have flown maritime patrol planes into Japanese airspace around the islands. A predictable cycle thus emerged: The Japanese responded by scrambling F-15s, and last week, the Chinese sent two J-10 fighter jets to “monitor” Japanese military aircraft, according to the South China Morning Post. Now, the new Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing to go one step further: giving Japanese pilots the authority to fire warning shots with tracer bullets across the nose of any Chinese aircraft that doesn’t heed warnings to leave Japanese-controlled airspace.
It was barely a dozen years ago that the U.S. and China faced a crisis when a hotshot Chinese pilot collided with a U.S. electronic-surveillance plane over the South China Sea, crashing both aircraft. Japan and China are now on a metaphorical collision course, too, and any accident when tensions are so high could be the spark in a tinderbox. It’s not difficult to see Beijing issuing orders for Chinese fighters to fire their own warning shots if Japanese jets start doing so. Even though leaders from both countries promise to meet and keep things cool, a faceoff at 20,000 feet is much harder to control than one done more slowly and clearly on the ocean’s surface.
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.