With China continuing to rise, it has decided the time is right to discard the principle of “concealing its capabilities and biding its time,” which was proposed by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
In addition, the US’ strategic adjustment and return to East Asia means that the region seems to be entering a new phase, one that can be characterized by the increasing tensions over control of the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
China recently declared a new air defense identification zone, and the country almost had one of its vessels collide with a US warship in the South China Sea at the same time Japan released a revised version of its core defense policy.
This series of events highlights the overriding characteristic of this new phase, which is a steady increase in opposition and rivalry among several powerful countries that is becoming increasingly obvious to the world.
This does not necessarily mean that war is imminent, but it is obvious that the peace and stability enjoyed in East Asia over the past few decades can no longer be taken for granted. The risk of conflict is increasing and nations in the region are continuously preparing for diverse types of conflict.
When one side begins security preparations, it provides opposing sides with the legitimacy to also prepare. This competition in security preparedness increases the likelihood of conflict. This is a classic security dilemma.
The South China Sea and the Diaoyutais, which China calls the Diaoyu Archipelago and Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, have become central to East Asia’s set of international relations problems.
Conflicts centered on these two areas have become the most important security concern for the powerful countries involved, and all their national security and strategic adjustments revolve around the possibility of these conflicts escalating.
Could conflicts surrounding these two issues bring about a rebalancing for this out-of-balance region, and are future conflicts over these two areas inevitable?
Conflict is not inevitable. When examining these questions in more detail, it is clear that military conflicts between a few powerful countries in Northeast Asia would not benefit any one nation.
To use the Diaoyutais as an example: If China were to overpower Japan in a conflict surrounding the Diaoyutais and gain sovereignty over the islands, what would be the result? Would this mean that Japan would be submissive to China in the future? Would China be considered invincible? Would this not make neighboring countries to China more wary of China’s rise and further promote creating an alliance against China?
Is this not exactly what those intent on containing China would want most of all?
In the same vein, what would be the result if the US and Japan were to defeat the People’s Liberation Army in a conflict over the islands? Would this not cause even stronger nationalism to emerge within China? Would the resulting dynamic give China an excuse to become more defensive? It would, without a doubt, lead to an even larger conflict with China.
It is hard to say whether a development such as this would make the US’ allies take pause, just as Britain did when it eventually chose not to support the US’ unilateral military intervention in Syria.
However, a serious conflict with China would hurt the US’ leadership role in the region and would help China gain a more advantageous position in East Asia.