WATCH Chinese television these days and you might conclude that the outbreak of war with Japan over what it calls the Senkaku and China the Diaoyu islands is only a matter of time. You might well be right. Since Japan in September announced it would “nationalise” three of the islands that had been privately owned, China, which has long contested Japan’s sovereignty over them, has also started challenging its resolve to keep control of them. So both countries are claiming to own the islands and both are pretending to administer them. China this week announced its intention to map them thoroughly. Something has to give.
Since then China, too, has become more assertive over the islands. Already, in his speech to the Communist Party’s five-yearly congress in November, Hu Jintao, its outgoing leader, had declared China’s ambition to “build itself into a maritime power”, the first time this had been stated so explicitly. Nor is it clear that his successor, the less wooden Xi Jinping, who will be named president in March, shares his predecessors’ habitual caution in dealings with America. He will surely see no benefit in compromising with Japan, which is despised by many Chinese. And, with little or no military experience, he will want to appear a strong commander-in-chief.
It is against this backdrop that televised military punditry is booming in China. On current-affairs programmes, armchair warriors pontificate about the Diaoyus. Newspapers propagate a uniformly jingoistic analysis of the increasing likelihood of armed conflict.
They are not making it up. Last month a small aircraft of China’s State Oceanic Bureau flew into what Japan considers its territorial airspace over the Senkakus. Flying too low to be detected by Japan’s land-based radar, it was spotted too late for a scramble of eight F-15 fighter jets to prove effective. Since then, Japan has deployed Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS). On January 7th Chinese patrol ships spent more than 13 hours near the islands—longer than ever before, said Japanese officials. On January 10th, when two Japanese F-15s scrambled to intercept a Chinese plane flying near the islands, China scrambled its own fighter jets.
Now the Japanese air force is weighing whether to fire warning shots if Chinese aircraft come into its airspace, for the first time since 1987, when the former Soviet Union intruded. For General Peng Guanqian of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, interviewed on a Chinese web portal, this would amount to the first shot of “actual combat”. China should then “respond without courtesy”, he said. The Japanese press reported that America had also warned Japan against firing shots.
A widely read, if shrill, Beijing newspaper, Global Times, has argued that Japan might not be deterred and “we need to prepare for the worst”. Japan, it said, had become the “vanguard” of an American strategy to “contain China”. The implication was that China should also be ready to take on America, which has made clear that its security treaty with Japan covers the disputed islets.
The dangers of combat are rarely spelt out to Chinese audiences. China would widely be seen as the provocateur. Japan is its second-largest trading partner and one of its biggest foreign investors. The knock-on effects would include an escalation of unease about China around the region. Other countries with territorial disputes with it, such as India, Vietnam and the Philippines, would look even more keenly towards America for support.
So much to lose
The risk that the dispute might cause a serious rift with America must haunt some of China’s diplomats. Many of them believe that this would thwart China’s ambition to become a respected global power. So calmer voices may yet prevail. A botched military engagement could inflame nationalist sentiment at home and turn it against the party for its perceived incompetence. For all their rapid acquisition of sophisticated hardware in recent years, the Chinese armed forces lack the combat experience that might give them confidence in their ability to prevail. As for projecting force, the islands lie closer to Japan (as well as to Taiwan, which also claims them) than to the Chinese mainland.
But China’s foreign-policy behaviour has become more unpredictable of late. Many of its officials believe that America has been weakened by the global financial crisis and debilitating wars, even as China has grown stronger. Toughness abroad might also give Mr Xi, a nationalist, some cover for a more risk-taking approach to handling problems at home. In recent weeks there have been a few signs that he might be a bit more open-minded than his predecessors. A recent crisis involving a strike by journalists at a popular and relatively liberal newspaper was resolved without obvious repercussions for the journalists involved. As dense smog this week choked Beijing and several other cities, China’s press has had unusually free rein to complain about air pollution.
The firmness of Mr Xi’s grip on policymaking is hard to divine. It will not be clear for some weeks who, if anyone, will have day-to-day control over foreign policy in the decision-making standing committee of the party’s Politburo, which for the past decade has lacked a dedicated foreign-policy handler. It is also possible that rising tensions with Japan reflect China’s leaders’ distraction by struggles relating to the succession. Lacking clear direction, bureaucracies may be trying to look tough.
Meanwhile, Mr Abe launched a trip to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia on January 16th, his first journey abroad since taking office. Despite the inclusion of Vietnam, his officials talk of “values diplomacy”, an attempt to forge closer ties with democratic allies. Though the mission is ostensibly to foster closer economic ties with a fast-growing region, countering the Chinese threat seems an equally pressing motive. Some Japanese experts believe the trip too provocative. China probably saw it as a bid at diplomatic encirclement.
Even if armed clashes are averted, tensions will persist. Mr Tanaka lists three essential elements of any easing: to cool public sentiment; to reaffirm the importance of the bilateral relationship; and to find a way of discussing the Senkakus. Not one of these is yet in sight.