Will Asia succumb to internecine warfare a mere century after Europe did? Most observers would argue that this is extremely improbable, but not inconceivable. When I asked the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal to estimate the likelihood of a clash between China and Japan over the next five years, he replied, “Not zero, which is enough to be worrying.”
In November, China declared an “air defense identification zone” that covers territory also claimed by Japan, including the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (to China, the Diaoyu Islands). This is China’s latest effort to strengthen its maritime claims in the Asia-Pacific.
In May 2009, China’s ambassador to the United Nations sent Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a note claiming “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.” Attached was a map that reproduced China’s self-declared “nine-dash line,” encompassing some 80 percent of the South China Sea. As seen in its interactions with Vietnam and the Philippines, China has also applied persistent bilateral pressure to resolve maritime disputes in its favor.
Three days after China announced its ADIZ, the United States deployed two B-52 bombers to the zone without notifying China, and on Dec. 5, a U.S. Navy warship and a Chinese vessel nearly collided in the South China Sea.
On Dec. 17, Japan released its first national-security strategy, pledging to “respond firmly but in a calm manner” to China’s “attempts to change the status quo by coercion ... which are incompatible with ... international law.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in October that China would not “be able to emerge peacefully” unless it changed course.
Tensions continue to escalate. What if China shoots down a Japanese drone that enters its ADIZ, or vice versa? Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng has warned that China would treat the latter incident as “an act of war” and “take firm countermeasures.” What then?
Thankfully, there are compelling grounds for optimism. It is likely that any “war” between China and Japan would actually consist of one or more contained confrontations, with little military power employed and few, if any, casualties.
Second, however much the traumas of the past might color their relationship, the growth in their economic interdependence continues apace. Richard Katz argues “Chinese-Japanese economic relations ... are set to get better” because of “the economic reality that China needs Japan just as much as Japan needs China.”
Finally, the U.S. would almost certainly intervene in the event of a Sino-Japanese clash. China and Japan understand that no good can come from tumult between the world’s three largest economies (which accounted for 42 percent of gross world product in 2012), two of which have nuclear weapons. Why, then, do Segal and others maintain the possibility of such a clash?
First, impulse can prevail over even the most considered cost-benefit analysis.
Second, it is impossible to know what might propel tensions beyond restraint. No one can explain why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, rather than other flashpoints, was the immediate precursor to World War I – hence the analytical folly of saying that it “caused” the outbreak of hostilities. China, Japan and potential interlocutors should not focus on avoiding a trigger whose nature and time cannot be predicted. Instead, they should focus on reversing trends that increase the likelihood that a trigger will happen in the first place.
Third, the present Sino-Japanese strategic balance is unusual. As The Economist noted recently, “East Asia has never before had a strong China and a strong Japan at the same time.” Japan is unlikely to acquiesce to the restoration of Chinese centrality in the region.
Fourth, the Asia-Pacific has been unable to establish a shared purpose and vision. Historic antagonisms among China, Japan and South Korea are always close to the surface. Witness the anger that Abe’s ill-advised Dec. 26 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine elicited in China. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meanwhile, fear they will have to “choose” between the U.S. and China in due course.
While it is likely that China and Japan will not go to war, the possibility could hang over the Asia-Pacific like a sword of Damocles, preventing the region from devoting energy to challenges such as environmental degradation and resource shortages. Even if war does not occur, moreover, sustained tension – between the U.S. and China and between China and Japan – could undermine cooperation between the U.S. and China as well as nascent efforts to form the skeleton of an Asian community.
Ali Wyne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a
contributing analyst at Wikistrat. He is a co-author of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World” (2013). This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).