Antagonism between Japan and China over the Diaoyutais (釣魚台), called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) in China, keeps surging, spurred by competition for resources, spats between Chinese and Japanese vessels, Tokyo’s nationalization of three of the islets and a jet fighter scramble between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). Taiwan also claims the Islands.
This tension is bound to escalate because no leader in either Japan or China can afford the political cost of concession.
A Jan. 14 article in the PLA Daily titled “2013 Military Training Instruction for All Troops” was circulated by the PLA’s General Staff Department. The article read: “All troops and armed forces must stick to the aim of being capable to fight. Through preparation for military assaults, we must vigorously reinforce practical war training.”
Chinese broadcaster CTV has also helped drum up nationalism through a program called War of the Diaoyu Islands, while in a recent symposium the notion of limiting armed conflict was dismissed as disgraceful advice.
These incidents have been interpreted by the outside world as China making preparations for war. Michael Clarke, director general of the Royal United Service Institute, said at Japan’s National Press Club that China waged war to punish India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979, and might do so again.
The question is: At what stake is China taking this stance? Usually, proactive strategic decisions are made by those who consider themselves invincible and able to handle foreseeable aftermath.
The PLA sees Japan’s economy as dependent on China and that Beijing has the upper hand economically. However, according to a 2012 white paper released by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the two countries are interdependent and the Chinese economy is no less impervious to sudden impacts than Japan’s.
Declaring war could cost China the historical advantage it gained from the second Sino-Japan War and its aftermath; where Japan was the invading force and China was given the status of victor in the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951.
The US has urged Japan to lift its ban on weapons export and their use by the JSDF. The Japanese public’s anti-war sentiment has stopped Tokyo from complying with the US’ requests, but public opinion has changed following China’s fueling of hostility toward Japan last year.
As a result, proposed constitutional amendments have gained great support, making it possible for Japan to legitimately turn the JSDF into a force that might have the capacity to use nuclear weapons –– is this what China wants?
If Japan started war it would violate its constitution and alliance with the US. The recent joint US-Japan maneuver to recapture “a remote island invaded by an enemy force” was reactive. Perceiving this, Beijing has become daring, even more so after Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) became Chinese Communist Party general secretary and chairman of its Central Military Commission.
Beijing has been pushing boundaries by normalizing the deployment of coastal patrols that were originally sporadic and putting civil patrol aircraft on duty with military planes. Strange as it may appear, Beijing is governing China through strategies typical of mass revolutions.
Former American Institute in Taiwan chairperson Richard Bush has warned about the lack of a mechanism between Tokyo and Beijing to manage regional crises. Once war contingencies emerge, the only means of communication would be through the US and Russia.
Finally, does anyone know whose side President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) would take? One would hope this does not end up being a catastrophic surprise.
HoonTing is a writer.