Despite its air defence zone, the only fight China wants is an economic one
Andrew Leung says all sides need to pursue peace, and cooling-off measures must be put in place
Tension continues to simmer over China's air defence identification zone. Japan has taken the matter to the International Civil Aviation Organisation and has vowed to rally the international community to put pressure on China to rescind the zone.
China's neighbours, including South Korea, are getting anxious. The United States, as the status quo guarantor of regional security, is rightfully alarmed. Vice-President Joe Biden raised US concerns during his visit to the region.
So, what's China's game?
First, many countries have air zones. China's establishment of a zone means it now has a legal basis to be treated equally.
Second, China hopes its zone will be accepted as the norm, as in the case of other countries, thus strengthening its territorial claims in the region, including that to the Diaoyus. It will also boost China's air defences following the US pivot to Asia.
Third, none of the three parties involved wants a war. Japan needs to rejuvenate its economy. Rising nationalism notwithstanding, its people do not relish a repeat of the aggressive militarism that led to Japan's inglorious end in the second world war.
Likewise, Americans have grown tired of wars and are unlikely to risk blood and treasure over some rocks in the East China Sea. They are more concerned about jobs.
As for China, the new leadership has just unveiled a massive reform package. Peace, rather than war, is necessary to deliver the goods.
Fourth, China is the largest trading partner of most of its neighbours, a relationship that provides them with jobs and investment. At the same time, many Asian countries also rely on the American pivot as a military hedge against a rising China. For its part, China feels that this is a trap to embroil her in a regional conflict while it is trying to double its gross domestic product to become a middle-income country. So, in any power play, China is likely to prefer competing on the economic stage, rather than in military matters.
Fifth, the biggest prize for China is not the tiny Diaoyus/Senkakus but Taiwan. Cross-strait relations are now on a more peaceful course - economically, socially and financially. While formal unification may well remain a pipe dream, the prospect of Taiwan coming back to China's fold in one form or another in the not-so-distant future is becoming less elusive.
Time is on China's side. If it were to become involved in a regional war now, no matter what the outcome, it would dash the hope of any peaceful "unification" by another name, perhaps indefinitely, in view of Taiwan's special relationship with America.
Sixth, experts cite the many reasons why China won't go to war with Japan, including the nightmare possibility of defeat, mutual economic dependence, doubts about its military readiness as well as unsettled domestic politics. So, according to Trefor Moss, formerly the Asia-Pacific editor at
Jane's Defence Weekly, "Abe should be able to push back against China - so long as he doesn't go too far … while its military is still a match for China's".
Seventh, there is the burning issue of mounting nationalism in China, especially against an old foe. Coupled with China's centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign aggressors, the country carries with it overwhelming historical baggage. Thus, no Chinese leader could afford to respond with less than the full might of the nation if things are pushed too far, Japan's US defence treaty notwithstanding.
Eighth, neither China nor Japan, along with the US, can afford to appear weak to their respective political constituents. Hence, a game of chicken is being played. What is more, China wishes to normalise treatment of its status as a great power. Xi, ahead of his historic tête-à-tête with President Barack Obama at a holiday retreat in California this year, said that he wished to create "a new type of relations between major powers". He wanted to debunk the popular thinking that rising powers inevitably come to clash with existing major powers, as in the case of the two world wars. And he opted to start from a position of strength.
Over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, all parties are well advised to put in place cooling-off mechanisms to prevent unintended consequences, whereby any one side has no choice but to respond militarily. This would trigger a "security spiral", escalating into a full-blown catastrophic regional and possibly global war.
Such mechanisms could include, for example, arrangements for a narrowly defined "no-fly zone" and "demilitarised sensitive waters" near these disputed islands to prevent direct air or sea clashes. These should be supported by emergency hotlines at the highest levels between China, Japan and the US, coupled with predetermined mediation procedures through the UN where necessary.
Regardless of geopolitical calculations, the last thing the world wants is a regional war of unpredictable proportions.
Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong