The spat between China and Japan over their maritime dispute is entering a dangerous phase with the potential to ignite a military confrontation. China lodged an official protest with Japan when its ships entered an area in the Pacific Ocean and disrupted Chinese live ammunition military exercises.
“Not only did this interfere with our normal exercises, but it endangered the safety of our ships and aircraft, which could have led to a miscalculation or mishap or other sudden incident,” Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun (楊宇軍) said.
He called it “a highly dangerous provocation,” leading the defense ministry to make “solemn representations to the Japanese side.”
Both sides are determined to maintain their ground, with Japan insisting that it would not allow China to change the maritime “status quo” via military means. To this end, Tokyo is beefing up its armed strength and marshaling together a regional front, as China also has contested maritime boundary disputes with other countries in the region.
“There are concerns that China is attempting to change the ‘status quo’ by force [in Asia], rather than by rule of law,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was reported as saying. “But if China opts to take that path, then it won’t be able to emerge peacefully. So it shouldn’t take that path, and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view. And they hope that as a result, China will take responsible action in the international community.”
Abe’s statement suggests two things. First, that Japan is anointing itself as the leader of a regional coalition to forewarn China against any military action to change the “status quo.”
It is not clear if Abe has the authorization of the countries concerned to be speaking on their behalf, although he did have a series of summits with regional leaders recently. In the absence of any repudiation by countries contesting China’s maritime and territorial claims, it seems that a political regional front, at the very least, is shaping up against China.
Second, Tokyo has made it abundantly clear that it will not budge from its position, even backing it up with military means if necessary.
Even though the US is maintaining its silence on the saber-rattling between China and Japan, it has mutual obligations with Japan if a conflict were to start. The ongoing brinkmanship has consequences that go beyond the Japan-China bilateral relationship.
Ever since Abe became prime minister, Japan has toughened its resolve to face up to China’s assertive claims of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan. He said that “the security environment facing Japan is becoming ever more severe.”
Taiwan also claims the islands.
Japan is taking concrete measures to beef up its defense. It has raised defense expenditure, as has China over the past few years. It is scrambling jet fighters in reaction to Chinese air and naval visits near the disputed islands and is threatening to shoot down Chinese drones if they fly into Japanese air space. China says that would be an act of war, and so it goes on.
As part of its defense preparedness, Japan recently unveiled its largest warship since World War II, which is somewhat like an aircraft carrier. The ship has a flight deck nearly 250m long and is designed to carry up to 14 helicopters. Its unveiling, in the context of growing tensions with China, gives it a special meaning.
Japan is keen to amend its pacifist constitution, which prohibits it from waging war. The government is slowly trying to get around Article 9 of its constitution that ties it down to a pacifist role. Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso suggested it follow the example of Germany in the 1930s by simply scuttling the constitution, which was imposed on Japan by the US after World War II. That raised some hackles and the minister backed off, saying he was quoted out of context.
The deep hostility between China and Japan is rooted in contemporary history, starting with the Sino-Japanese war from 1894 to 1895, with China roundly defeated and Japan emerging as a new world power. This came on top of China’s defeat and humiliation in the Opium Wars from 1839 to 1842, and from 1856 to 1860 at the hands of the British, with China exposed as a waning power and easy prey.
This encouraged Japan to make its own bid to gain territorial and commercial advantage from a declining China and hence the 1894 to 1895 war. Japan went on to attack China during the 1930s, occupying Manchuria and making further inroads during World War II with reports of atrocities committed on Chinese people.
The bitter memories of those times are fresh in a rejuvenated and resurgent China, which is now keen to reclaim its “lost territories” that supposedly were once part of its vast kingdom, including almost the entire Asia-Pacific region.
While Japan is probably China’s most hated neighbor, Beijing’s maritime disputes with other countries in the region are creating strategic convergence with Tokyo from the likes of the Philippines and Vietnam, which had earlier hated Japan as much as China for its war crimes.
China is not happy over it, but attaches more importance to its national project of unifying its “lost kingdom.” This muddies the waters further, making it a regional issue rather than simply a bilateral China-Japan affair.
Japan is equally adamant about its territorial integrity. After its defeat in World War II and occupation by the US, Japan was a lost country needing direction. It was also the time when the Cold War had started pitting the US and its Western allies against the Soviet bloc. And Japan was co-opted into the US bloc as an independent state, but with its foreign and security policies under US direction.
With China being part of the Soviet bloc in the early stages of the Cold War, Japan was obviously favored by the US in its, then dormant, territorial disputes. Since then, these disputes have come into the open and China blames the US for encouraging Japan on its course.
Some Chinese commentators often make the argument that the US has no business being in the Asia-Pacific region and fueling tensions. The counterargument, and indeed the US policy, is that the US is as much an Asia-Pacific country with its Pacific coast and trade and strategic interests as China.
In other words, the US “pivot” to Asia is a valid policy after more than a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That makes US alliances with Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries part of its strategic axis — which makes the ongoing China-Japan brinkmanship all the more dangerous.
Unless there is a diplomatic resolution of the contested maritime disputes in the region, it is like living near a volcano that might erupt at any time.
Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.