Generally speaking, Japanese bureaucrats are not much given to exaggeration, so when a senior government insider in Tokyo — speaking off the record — recently compared the deteriorating security situation in East Asia to Europe in the 1930s amid the rise of fascism, it was time to sit up and take notice.
“Tensions are getting very high in this part of the world,” the official said. “The security position is extremely severe. There are huge arms sales from Russia, the US and Europe. China’s defense spending has seen double-digit growth each year since 1989. They are not a responsible partner. US influence in the region is receding.”
Bad blood between Japan and China runs deep and, in the modern era, dates from the 1931 invasion of Manchuria.
Following its defeat in 1945 and its adoption of a pacifist constitution, Japan became wholly dependent on the US for its defense.
Some analysts claim it has long been in Tokyo’s interests to play up the China “threat,” but, objectively speaking, the threat is real and it becomes tangibly more worrying by the day.
Extraordinarily rapid economic growth in China in recent decades has seen it overtake Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, and the concomitant expansion of Beijing’s political, diplomatic and military might have set alarm bells clanging across the region as never before.
Today, the talk at embassy cocktail parties is not so much about how to “contain” China — the great, lost conceit of hawkish US geostrategists — as how to appease it.
Tellingly, the Japanese official’s warning came days before China unexpectedly declared a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea covering the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which are claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan, which calls them the Senkakus.
The ensuing row saw Japan, the US and South Korea send fighter aircraft into the zone in open, dangerous defiance of Beijing’s strictures. A subsequent mediation mission by the US Vice President Joe Biden failed to resolve the standoff, in effect leaving a powder keg smoldering and untended.
Nobody is talking openly about a third world war, not yet at least. However, there is a growing awareness that the seeds of a possible future superpower collision are being sown around the islands, rocks and shoals, and in the overpopulated sea lanes and airspace beyond China’s historic borders, to which Beijing lays claim with growing political robustness and ever-improving military capacity.
The lack of a regional security organization, the absence of a hotline between Beijing and Tokyo, and the ever-present menace represented by the nuclear-armed, Chinese-backed regime in North Korea all add to the inherent dangers of the current situation.
Like any empire in the past, as China’s power grows, that power is ineluctably projected to encompass Beijing’s immediate neighbors and — in time — geographical regions and even continents.
For Beijing, the final frontier in this reverse engineering of manifest destiny is the Pacific basin. Yet to achieve dominance, it must first displace the US, the world’s most militarily powerful nation. This contest has years to run, but it is now beginning, hence the whispers of war.
Three men currently hold the key to what may happen this year: One is Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army, who succeeded former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in March last year. In a sharp change of tone, Xi has dropped Hu’s talk of a magnanimous China’s peaceful rise and substituted a tougher, nationalist-sounding message stressing pride in one’s country at home and asserting China’s rights on the international stage with “indomitable will.”