The lead story of the Jan. 14 edition of the Chinese-language newspaper PLA Daily reported that a document released by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Department outlining military training for the Chinese army demanded that, this year, China’s entire military and armed police should heighten their state of alertness and prepare for war.
The PLA’s bellicosity can be attributed to the fact that the stance of new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, has been much stronger than that of his predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, especially in terms of military deployment.
However, Noda’s attitude was weak and this is why he was always being attacked. For example, China has conducted several military drills based on capturing islands, while Japan canceled a US-Japan joint military drill scheduled for Nov. 5 last year to the great displeasure of the US.
Therefore, once Abe came to power and conducted military drills on capturing islands, China saw this as a sign of Japan acting up. Similarly, with Chinese boats and aircraft constantly entering the waters and air space around the Diaoyutais, the Japan Coast Guard is having a hard time protecting Tokyo’s maritime interests. When Japan increased its level of defense, China viewed this as a provocation. The question is whether a military conflict will erupt.
Judging from the way things stand, neither side wants to go to war. Since taking office, Abe has been focusing his energies on rescuing the Japanese economy, which has been sluggish for the past two decades, and is understandably not interested in getting into a military conflict.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) has been busy consolidating his power, especially countering interference by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民). Therefore, the current back-and-forth between Japan and China is basically aimed at intimidation in an attempt to get the other side to back off.
What we have to look at is the power of each side to cope with the aftermath in the event of them losing any armed conflict. It is obvious that the leader of the losing side would have to leave office.
Japan is a democracy and it is normal for political leaders to come and go. Abe has already stepped down once before.
Xi, however, is in a different situation, with many people around him coveting his position. If he were to step down, he would become the target of severe criticism and his career would be over, unless he has the same skills that Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) displayed.
However, Xi is not the type of person who is deeply attached to officialdom and the possibility that he would have the nerve to stake everything on the matter cannot be excluded. He could very well copy Deng, who used the Sino-Vietnam War to squeeze out Hua Guofeng (華國鋒), the anointed heir to Mao Zedong (毛澤東), and establish his own authority. However, using this method of “patriotism” is senseless and could cause more harm than good.
When it comes to Chinese-Japanese military conflict, the US factor cannot be overlooked because the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan includes the Diaoyutais.
The US is a mediator and if things got out of hand, the US would still act as a mediator. However, if the conflict were to escalate, the US would take Japan’s side and there is no way that China could defeat the US and Japan.
Although Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Xi collaborated to stop Liu Yuan (劉源), a PLA general and politician, from joining the CCP’s Central Military Commission during the party’s 18th National Congress last year, many of the younger generation in the military still support disgraced former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (薄熙來).
There are also special interest groups that worry that Xi’s expected reforms will hurt their interests. If Xi’s policy of bringing China and Japan to the brink of war gets out of control, these people could create a lot of trouble, maybe even forcing Xi to step down.
If Japan were to lose any conflict, there would be a change of prime ministers or another election. However, if Xi were to step down, the ensuing power struggle within the CCP would result in chaos and would be much nastier than anything witnessed during the 18th National Congress.
In the end, this could even lead China’s various autonomous regions to start fighting to gain more power, as happened during the Qing Dynasty and the ensuing Xinhai revolution. However, this could also be the best chance for furthering democratization in China and it could be a great opportunity for Taiwan.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Drew Cameron