Too much at stake for Beijing and Tokyo to risk in war over islands

Despite growing sense Beijing and Tokyo are heading for blows over Diaoyus, both sides have strong reasons to keep tensions in check

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 4:22am

Are China and Japan hurtling towards a military conflict, possibly over the disputed Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkakus by Japan) sooner than later?

That question is always a compelling and heated table talk topic among mainlanders, including officials and the ordinary people alike, whenever bilateral ties are tense over historic issues or territorial disputes.

The conclusion is usually "yes", but often followed by "we hope not".

Now it has taken on extra urgency and seriousness after Sino-Japanese ties plunged to a historic new low following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit last month to the Yasukuni Shrine that honours Japan's war dead, including 14 top war criminals. The visit - the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006 - was condemned by China and South Korea, whose people suffered tremendously under the Japanese occupation until the end of the second world war.

The visit, coupled with Abe's hawkish pursuit of a more assertive military and national security policy that could see a revision of Japan's pacifist post-war constitution, has confirmed the worst fears in China and deepened anger among those who see Japan as trying to revive its military past.

Beijing swiftly labelled Abe as "a troublemaker" and said it would refuse to meet him during his term and launched a global publicity campaign to condemn him. On the mainland, calls for a military confrontation with Japan are rising among nationalists and hawkish elements of the People's Liberation Army.

Earlier this month, General Liu Yazhou said in a magazine interview that an armed conflict over China's maritime territorial disputes would be a good test of the military's growing prowess.

Liu, political commissar at the National Defence University, the nation's leading military academy, argued that China's brief wars with India, Vietnam and the United States in Korea had ensured that the borders with those countries have remained largely stable. He said the PLA now had "a strategic opportunity" to boost its military capability to defend Chinese sovereignty over parts of the East and South China seas.

Liu's view, which is probably shared privately by many PLA officers, could in turn put more pressure on the leadership of President Xi Jinping to get tougher with Japan and other countries with whom China has territorial disputes.

A prevailing view among some analysts is that, as China faces more difficulties in restructuring it economy, with slowing growth and rising social discontent, a military conflict would help divert attention from domestic problems and stoke nationalism to rally around the leadership.

It is interesting to note that at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Abe likened current Sino-Japanese ties to those of Britain and Germany in 1914, which were inter-dependent economies and trading partners that enjoyed huge mutual benefits. But that did not stop both countries from going to war. In other words, Abe also believes that the two countries could be heading for a military conflict.

In case of an armed conflict over the Diaoyu Islands, the US may be obliged to intervene because of its security alliance with Japan, which would mean that the world's three largest economies would be at war, the worst possible news for global political and economic stability.

It is hard to be optimistic in such circumstances. But, equally, people should not be overly pessimistic as there are also good reasons to believe that armed conflict can be avoided.

First, despite the fact that nationalism is on the rise on the mainland as leaders adopt a more assertive foreign policy, the leadership also holds that China still faces a "strategic opportunity" to develop its economy. Armed conflict would greatly set back China's ambitious goal to create a relatively comfortable society by 2020.

Secondly, despite the war of words between China and Japan, both governments have quietly restrained nationalists at home from hitting the streets to protest or taking any drastic action to aggravate the already tense situation. Just as there are strong voices on the mainland urging restraint, some leading Japanese politicians including a few former prime ministers have criticised Abe for his shrine visit.

Thirdly, despite China's strong rhetoric, it has no intention of stoking tensions itself, particularly at a time when it is appealing for international sympathy and support. Although the mainland leadership has made it very clear that it won't deal with Abe directly, Beijing will host the annual Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit of more than 20 world leaders - including Abe - later this year.

This will be the first time the capital has hosted the summit, and it intends to use the event to showcase its rising positive influence on regional economic development and integration.

So, the last thing it needs is to see the tense Sino-Japanese relationship overshadow the meeting and its possible outcomes.

Finally, and most importantly, Washington can be expected to play an important role in cooling tension between the two Asian neighbours. From a mainland perspective, it was Washington's long-standing policy of containing China by supporting Japan, the Philippines and other countries that inflamed regional tensions in the first place. On the other hand, however, an armed conflict between China and Japan that would drag in Washington is not something Americans wants to see.

Following Abe's shrine visit, Washington openly expressed its disappointment and accused Abe of aggravating regional tensions further. Washington is reportedly putting more pressure on Abe and his government to refrain from further moves that would anger China and South Korea, including assurances from Abe that he would not return to the Yasukuni Shrine.