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
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