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CommentInsight & Opinion

High-stakes stand-off between Japan and China won't come to war

Trefor Moss says while a skirmish resulting from miscalculation is entirely possible, a war between China and Japan over disputed islands is not, because there's just too much to lose

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 4:48am

Let's spare a moment to feel absolutely terrified. China and Japan, with all the forethought of two angry bulls, appear to be spoiling for a fight with the potential to wreck East Asia.

A Sino-Japanese war would be calamitous for both countries, win or lose, and for the rest of us besides. Even so, some respected observers are warning that the brinkmanship of 2012, far from cooling heads in Beijing and Tokyo, was only a prelude to full-bore hostilities later this year.

The stakes are almost too high to take on board. Even a limited Sino-Japanese conflict would be very damaging: the loss of life would probably be contained, but the economies of both countries would take a battering, while the global economy would also suffer badly. As for a larger, protracted war in which the US intervened against China on Japan's behalf … Well, on that day, we can all forget about Leung Chun-ying's basement and about what Brad Pitt might be saying on Weibo, because the free-and-easy world we know will have just melted down.

So is it time to start stocking up on canned food and bottled water? How worried should we really be?

One eminent Asia-watcher, Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University, reckons that canned-food hour is nearly upon us. "Don't be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China [in 2013] over the uninhabited rocks that Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyu islands," White recently advised in the Sydney Morning Herald. Without a swift outbreak of diplomatic common sense, of which there is currently little sign, he foresees further escalation leading sooner or later to a violent confrontation between Chinese and Japanese/US forces, at which point "a spiral to war begins that no one can stop".

White is not alone in seeing the trend lines converging towards a scary and violent endpoint. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was recently handed a security assessment warning that the China-Japan problem could spin out of control unless they get around the table and make darn sure that it doesn't. Joseph Nye, a big-hitter of political science, was part of the brains trust that delivered the report. Meanwhile, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences came to a bleak conclusion in its end-of-year review, judging conflict with Japan over the disputed islands to be "inevitable".

China's military build-up, its antipathy towards Japan and its inflexibility on sovereignty issues are nothing new. The novel and dangerous side of the unfolding equation, the war-niks argue, is the nationalist turn in Japanese politics, embodied by the election of the conservative Shinzo Abe. Abe campaigned on a platform of being tougher on China, and his administration has wasted no time outlining plans to increase defence spending and expand the armed forces. So if and when a confrontation erupts, it will be hard for the tough-talking Abe to back down - just as China's incoming president, Xi Jinping , will not want to look soft by ducking any Japanese punches.

So that's it, then. We sit and wait for the fatal confrontation over one of those small sea-rocks that almost no Chinese or Japanese people have ever clapped eyes on - a spark, then a fire, then a blaze that will consume East Asia's peaceful and prosperous order, seven decades in the making.

But here's a quick thought before we're all swizzled down the plughole of despair. The war might never happen. In fact, everything about the structure of the interconnected, interdependent world which China and Japan co-inhabit points very strongly to the fact that it won't.

Behind the combative rhetoric, both Beijing and Tokyo understand very well that war would be the worst imaginable outcome, decimating their economies and potentially terminating both countries' singularly self-interested political elites.

These overlapping interests hardly matter, Professor White would argue. The origins of the war will be tiny - the captain of a Chinese or Japanese ship losing his nerve, perhaps, amid the tension of a stand-off at sea, and making a snap decision to open fire. Then, before they can get a grip, the countries' leaders are overtaken by events: a war that no one decided to wage has taken on a life of its own; one side is shooting, and the other is shooting back; neither feels able to back down.

There is no denying that we could see Chinese and Japanese ships or aircraft blasting holes in each other in the coming months, so long as these feckless confrontations - such as we saw last week, when Chinese fighters needlessly buzzed the edge of Japanese airspace - are allowed to continue. But the downward spiral into war is not inevitable. Even the best political scientists are only guessing when it comes to future events. Very often, they guess wrong. They have no theory that tells us war is coming.

In fact, this "spiral" picture just doesn't add up. The feared clash between Chinese and Japanese forces would be initiated spontaneously, but the subsequent escalation would require conscious decisions, the deployment of extra warships and aircraft under orders to widen the conflict and destroy the enemy. Who in their right mind would give such orders? Limited deployments may well be necessary in order to save face, but if a fight becomes unavoidable, China and Japan would be compelled to manage it, and keep it contained - for their own sakes.

When the shooting starts, politicians in Beijing and Tokyo will have this essential choice: to punch each other in the eye, or to stab each other through the heart. They may be willing to play fast and loose with the lives of their sailors and pilots, and the security of our region. But with their own futures, not so much.

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and former Asia-Pacific editor for Jane's Defence Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Trefor1

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pslhk
andao demonstrates nip talk in asserting that yapping nips,
despite military drills and scrambling fighter jets
are not even considering war an option
Hopeless liars, hypocrites, and psychopaths.
That's why nip war criminals are national heros.
Indignation, not excitement.
You are confused, andao
because you are sick
babyhenry
Who started this Farce? Japan and now once again China is getting blame for standing up for its right, what a Joke.
China IMO should use this opportunity to offload all those garbage US debt investments it have to Japan, since Japan is soo eager to please their master who nuke them twice, China should grab on this opportunity and offload all those USD junk asap, perhaps washington will be smart and make Japan buy all of them, since wouldn't those debt be better in Japanese hands then Chinese hands?
pslhk
lyono (Jan 17th 2013 1:38pm)
is right that
(“the JPs started all this!!!)
The nips started every war it fought in the past
and have been lying about its war crimes ever since
The only nip politician and scholar
who isn’t the worst kind of a liar
is one who honestly admits the nation's defeat and war crimes
pslhk
War breaks out
because of there are bigots like abe and andao,
full of rubbish
- Chinese “apologise” for shooting down a **** invader plane / ship?
andao, this is SCMP and not Asahi Shimbun
Scared Shinto there is primitive cult here
Golf of Tonkin was a replica of Mukden
The ****, again busily aggravating the troubles they started,
have backed themselves into a corner
Yapping about, going east and west begging for support
Preparing for war
China has repeatedly invited **** to talk
But ****, being coward and irrational, shrink
CCP has set a standard for the coming war
To inflict at least an equal measure of kill / destruction
WWII showed that **** started war to lose
CCP has always joined wars to win

andao
I'm not a bigot. I just see one side getting very excited about war, while the other side not even considering that as an option.
You seem awful excited. I assume you've joined the PLA then, yes? Otherwise you're just an armchair general, and a coward.
Earl Smith
Hes making a fair point.
China and Japan can only but lose, by going to war, with each other. China knows the dangers, United States will likely have to join Japan, if the war is prolonged and messy.
i do believe however their is a slim risk of confrontation, because currently one side ( the Japanese side, still refuses to least acknowledge there is a dispute between the two countries!!)
When you have one side refusing to talk about the ownership of the islands, this will embolden the other side to do something, they might regret later, having done.
Then its too late to turn back, damage is done.
if the two sides don't talk about the islands soon, possibility of something bad happening will always be there.
andao
If a Japanese plane gets shot down or a a ship sunk, even by total accident, there is no possible way the Chinese could come out and apologize for that. Chinese people would be thrilled by this development. Then it would be full on war, unless both China and Japan were to cover up the incident, but the bellicose speeches from Chinese generals tells me that they would not let this issue die.
Or what if a Chinese plane crashes on accident? Everyone would point fingers at Japan, whether or not they had anything to do with it. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.
The Chinese have backed themselves into a corner. They have no choice but to stay the course or escalate. How could they possibly try to cool things down with Japan without risking tens of millions of people taking to the streets, or open revolt by their generals? One of the virtues of democracy is a little more diplomatic flexibility, which Japan has but China does not.
Front page article on Shenzhen Daily yesterday said "PLA prepares for war". With all this pro-war propaganda, any deescalation would look like outright betrayal. The leadership has to figure they have a better chance of staying in power and losing a war against Japan, than they do by relaxing tensions and getting kicked out by overzealous generals and fenqing who would take to the streets. Past dictators have very often retained power after losing a war. War is not as distant as the author would hope, and that's terrifying
water
Trefor Moss is obviously not acquainted with history. Prior to WWI and WWII, the argument was made that England and Germany could not go war because their economies were "interconnected and interdependent." Yet, they did.
Achillvdb
Just what I was going to say
anson
This issue/controversy is really just a smokescreen, but one that the Japanese don't want to see or too dumb to see. The only reason the US might support you is to try and hem China in. The vast majority of Western people, irrespective of their favoured political system, have little genuine interaction, friendship or trust for Japan or Japanese people. It is ironic that the US may support Japan when historically there has always been a far closer 'grass-roots' relationship between Chinese people and Westerners than between Japanese and Westerners.
Japan should see that unless they can guarantee to get support from the US they are risking more than a few rocks. China is both militarily and economically more powerful than Japan. I hope Japan and Abe can review the situation more rationally and see that ultimately what they view as assertiveness other nations view as being manipulated as a player would manipulate a pawn. And Abe, China is also important to the US domestic prosperity. Is Japan so important anymore?

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