The Coming War Between China and Japan — Maybe Not In the Realm of Fantasy

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One of Beijing’s first responses to the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling against its territorial claims in the South China Sea including its sacrosanct “nine-dash-line” was, according to a  July 16th report in the South China Post, to lash out at Japan.(http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1990349/china-japan-dont-get-involved-south-china-sea-row).  Beijing reportedly issued a warning to Tokyo “to not get involved in South China Sea disputes” at the just-completed (July 15-16) Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of about fifty nations in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.    Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reportedly told Japanese Prime Minister Abe on the ASEM sidelines  to “stop hyping up and interfering on the South China Sea issue.”  The fact that Beijing chose to direct its greatest broadside at its regional rival Japan over the Philippines, which had brought the suit to the Hague court in 2013, indicates the level of acrimony between the two sides.  Tokyo responded by joining Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea disputes, in voicing support for the PCA ruling during the ASEM summit.

Tokyo has assumed an active role in assisting its Southeast Asian neighbors in resistance of aggressive Chinese maritime behavior.  The fact that almost all of Japan’s fossil fuel supplies are carried via tankers from the Middle East through the South China Sea is certainly an issue of critical concern — especially following Tokyo’s renewed dependency on fossil fuel as an energy source following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011.  In addition, a reported $5 billion in global trade reportedly passes in vessels through the South China Sea each year.

Japan also sprang to Manila’s maritime defense at a June 2015 meeting in Tokyo between Abe and former Philippine President Aquino.  The Wall Street Journal carried a report titled “Japan to Provide Patrol Vessels to Philippines” on June 4, 2015  (http://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-to-provide-patrol-vessels-to-philippines-1433424771) which detailed the signing of an agreement between the Philippines and a Japanese shipbuilder for a fleet of ten patrol vessels, with Tokyo providing a $150 million low-interest loan to finance the deal.

The same article reported that the Australian Defense Minister was in Kobe at the time “surveying the shipyards of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries” –looking to  make purchases to upgrade Australia’s submarine fleet, also with an apparent eye on the Chinese naval buildup in southern waters.  Tokyo further was engaged in negotiations with Manila for a “defense equipment and technology transfer agreement,” following similar discussions with Malaysia, another South China Sea territorial claimant.  (The Tokyo-Manila agreement was subsequently signed in February of this year.)  Japan, according to the Wall Street Journal, has “donated new and used coast guard patrol boats to Indonesia and Vietnam” as well.

This was followed, according to the Japan Times,  by an April 2016 port visit of a flotilla of three Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force ships, two destroyers and a submarine,  to Subic Bay in the Philippines with the two destroyers then continuing on to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, transiting the disputed South China Sea waters in the process. (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/03/national/msdf-submarine-escort-ships-arrive-philippines-port-call-training/).  A  Philippine Navy public affairs officer was quoted as stating that the port call “has nothing to do with China.”  Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, however, had earlier lashed out at these and similar moves by Tokyo, stating that “Japan once illegally occupied China’s islands in the South China Sea during WWII.  We are on high alert against Japan’s attempt to return to the South China Sea through military means.”

These military sales and transfers were made possible after Prime Minister Abe sought to make Japan “a normal country,” unbound by post-World War II constitutional restrictions on its international military role, first by revising Tokyo’s previous stringent weapon-export rules in 2014.   Abe’s mission, however, goes further, seeking to alter the post-War “MacArthur” constitution, drafted in large part by the staff of the office of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), General Douglas MacArthur, and then presented to the defeated Japanese government for ratification.  The Prime Minister’s efforts received a major boost earlier this month.  On July 10 Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), along with like-minded coalition partners and independents, won the two-thirds “super-majority” in the Japanese parliament’s upper house required for constitutional revision.  (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-election-idUSKCN0ZQ010).  This should allow Abe to actively pursue elimination of current restrictions on a Japanese military build-up, including those imposed by the pacifist Article Nine of the current constitution which reads:

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

This may soon no longer be the case.   In a July 11th commentary on the Japanese election,  titled “Abe’s victory in Upper House election a threat to Japan, regional stability“, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency cautioned  that “As for Japan’s neighbors, due to historical reasons, they have been paying close attention to Japan’s security policies and moves.  Now, Japan’s re-militarization, as well as Abe gaining more power, will become new causes of alarm for them.”

Of course many in Washington’s national security establishment welcome a more robust defense role for Japan.  With the increased threats of a nuclear North Korea and a belligerently assertive China in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region, defense experts are looking for assistance from America’s allies, including Japan as the world’s third-largest economy.  With a cash-strapped defense budget and a naval force shrinking to below pre-Pearl Harbor levels putting President Obama’s highly touted “Asian pivot” at risk, Japan is seen by some as the key to rescuing U.S. Pacific interests.  If the economic side of the Obama “pivot”, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade proposal, is blocked from Congressional ratification, as is becoming extremely likely in the current anti-globalization political atmosphere, then the security side of the “pivot” becomes even more critical.

But there is risk as well as opportunity in the re-emergence of a Japan with a more robust defense posture.  Nor are Tokyo and Beijing’s increased tensions solely related to the South China Sea.  Taiwan’s new president has indicated a tilt by her administration in the direction of former colonial power Japan, something guaranteed to cause heartburn in Beijing, always suspicious of Japanese alleged interests in “splitting One China.”  And in the equally volatile East China Sea, China and Japan have repeatedly clashed over competing claims to the Senkaku/DiaoyuDiaoyutai island chain.  This last dispute should be a cause of  even greater concern for the American public, as Washington’s defense treaty obligations to Tokyo could inadvertently drag the United States into a Pacific armed conflict that few, if any, would welcome.

In one of her last official actions as U.S. Secretary of State, during a visit to Washington by the Japanese Foreign Minister in January 2013, “Hillary Clinton assured Japan Friday of U.S. support in Tokyo’s dispute with Beijing over a string of islands,” according to a Reuters report.  (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-usa-idUSBRE90H1AX20130118).  “Although the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, we acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan.  We oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration, and we urge all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means.”   Secretary Clinton’s statement at the time was certainly interpreted in Tokyo as an American commitment to come to the defense of Japan under the provisions of the bilateral mutual security treaty if the Senkaku islands were threatened by China.  With Hillary Clinton now the Democratic Party candidate for president, American parents may wish to reflect if they would want to put their children in the armed forces in harm’s way in the defense of a bunch of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea?

Among the tension-causing incidents to which Secretary Clinton was referring was one in which a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels in separate incidents in the waters near the disputed islands in September 2010.  The Chinese fishing boat captain, Zhan Qixiong, who reportedly ignored Japanese coast guard requests to leave the area,  was arrested and faced charges that could have brought him a three-year prison sentence. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/09/japan-china-fishing-boat-collision)   Then the war drums began to beat.  “A wave of indignation is brewing in Chinese society, which might snowball into a major public outcry if the Japanese authorities continue to take a hard-line stance,” Beijing’s official mouthpiece, the China Daily, stated.  An anti-Japanese demonstration was held in front of Tokyo’s Embassy in Beijing.  China also summoned Japan’s ambassador twice in 24 hours to protest over Zhan’s arrest.  Japanese prosecutors, however, defused the crisis by  releasing the ship captain two weeks later.  (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/24/japan-free-chinese-boat-captain)   This lead to criticism from Japanese nationalists that their government had backed down in the face of Chinese threats.

An even larger crisis over the Senkakus occurred in September 2012 when the Japanese government bought the disputed islands from their private owners reportedly to prevent them from falling into the hands of  a right-wing politician.  Then Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara had announced earlier in the year, during a visit to Washington,  his plans to purchase the islands.  “Tokyo will protect the Senkaku Islands” he said in a speech at  the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “Why would any country have a problem with that?”  (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/19/tokyo-governor-senkaku-islands-china)    Beijing responded to the Japanese government purchase by accusing Tokyo of  “stealing” the disputed islands and then sending two maritime law enforcement ships to the vicinity of the islands. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/12/world/asia/china-accuses-japan-of-stealing-disputed-islands.html).

Some of the largest anti-Japanese demonstrations ever then followed in cities across China, reaching a crescendo on September 18th, the anniversary of the 1931 Imperial Japanese invasion of Manchuria.  The demonstrations quickly turned violent with the burning of Japanese businesses and calls for boycotts of Japanese products.  Protesters attacked the sedan carrying then Ambassador Gary Locke outside the gates of the American Embassy in Beijing, presumably because of the U.S.’s pro-Tokyo stance on the territorial dispute.  A Chinese man was beaten and left partially paralyzed in the ancient capital of Xian for the simple reason that he was driving a Japanese-made vehicle.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/world/asia/xian-beating-becomes-symbol-of-nationalism-gone-awry.html).

I traveled on a Congressional staff delegation to Beijing, Dandong on the North Korean border, Seoul and Tokyo that fall.  I listened to the seething Chinese statements of resentment over not only the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute but over the whole laundry list of historic grievances directed against Japan.  In Tokyo I heard confusion from a group of Japanese university students, truly bewildered why their close neighbors (Korea included) so deeply resented them.  Only a Chinese business woman in Dandong, with commercial shipping interests tied to trade with Japanese ports, expressed a cool practicality, assuring us nervous Congressional staffers that all of the protests and posturing would blow over, stating “business is business.”  She was right, of course, as the crisis receded and both Chinese and Japanese went back to making money.

However, in closing, it strikes me that even though commercial self-interest seems to trump national resentments, East Asia is in a similar position to where Europe was just before the summer of 1914.  Repeated crises between the Great Powers had previously receded as everyone seemed interested in making money, with most of the titled heads of Europe being descended from Britain’s Queen Victoria.  But in the end, incendiary nationalism trumped mutual economic gain and a fratricidal conflict destroyed a whole generation of Europeans.  Europe, after two world wars and a Cold War, seems forever done with such major conflagrations.  But Asia  experienced the heated flame of nationalism later, with national aspirations repressed for much of the twentieth century by colonial occupation and national fragmentation.  Now tiny bits of territory like the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea or the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai island dispute in the East China Sea seem to inflame nationalist passions as much as Alsace-Lorraine or Schleswig-Holstein once did in Europe.

And Asia’s two Great Powers are presently headed by men with as strong a nationalist streak as Bismark.  Shinzo Abe of Japan has made his whole political career based upon nationalist sentiment, including a “normalization” of Japan as a major military power and a complete denial of those pre-war historic crimes which plunged Asia into total war.  Perhaps not surprising as he learned his history at the knee of his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, the economic manager of the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo and a member of the Tojo war cabinet.   Xi Jinping of China speaks equally fervently of a “China Dream” which seems to indicate a restoration of lost imperial greatness, a removal of the United States and its fleet from regional affairs, an absorption of Taiwan, a further political neutering of Hong Kong, and hegemony over China’s weaker neighbors.  Xi fails to see the irony in his invocation of “Asia for the Asians” rhetoric which echoes pre-war Imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” language, as some political commentators have perceptively pointed out. (http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1553414/xi-jinpings-asia-asians-mantra-evokes-imperial-japan)

So is the Trumpian call to abandon the Asia/Pacific playing field and leave the security ball in the hands of these two very nationalistic and diametrically opposed East Asian leaders really a wise choice?  Is a nuclear-armed Japan left to face all alone the Chinese (and North Korean) nuclear arsenal a true guarantor of that continued peace and prosperity which has produced the Asian Century?  Without the American nuclear umbrella in the skies above and the Seventh Fleet in the seas below, there seems little to ensure that a cataclysmic war in Asia between its two main rivals will not ensue just as war ruptured the European system once and for all in 1914.

 

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