Many of the headlines concerning East Asian politics have covered North Korea’s recent threats and the China-Japan territorial dispute in the East China Sea. In fact, Australian National University Professor of Strategic Studies Hugh White predicted a coming war in East Asia this year in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Several experts discussed Professor White’s argument and how such a potential war would progress.
After the U.N. Security Council’s unanimous January 22 condemnation of North Korea’s December satellite launch stating that the launch utilized forbidden ballistic missile technologies, North Korea threatened to attack the United States and South Korea and to proceed with another nuclear test.
Sometime during the first weekend of February, North Korea posted a video on Youtube that perhaps hinted at North Korea’s seriousness. With a burning New York City in the background, the subtitles read, “it appears that …the den of evil [alluding to the United States] is burning down.”
During a press briefing on February 4, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed her contempt at the video when she said, “I’m clearly not going to dignify it by speaking about it here.”
And perhaps expectedly, South Korean and American officials reported that the North had proceeded with their nuclear test this Tuesday. The North’s actions come in spite of its traditional ally, China, forwarding less-than-friendly warnings to abstain from such tests. The UN Security Council, chaired by South Korea, met Tuesday to discuss further actions while The Economist lamented that “there [were] not many more sanctions [the U.N. Security Council]” could impose.
Tensions rising between Japan and China
Meanwhile multiple sources reported that on the outskirts of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China), a Chinese naval frigate had locked its radar on a Japanese destroyer. In response, the Japanese government filed a protest to Beijing on February 4.
The Japanese government argued that a “locked” radar implies that a weapon can be fired at the target at any moment.
The disputed islands, administered by Japan and contested by China and Taiwan, have been the stage for the steady escalation of political tension. Until the recent radar-locking incident, the most chilling incident occurred on January 10, when Chinese and Japanese fighter jets simultaneously took to the air. Fortunately, a skirmish was avoided.
The United States has been tip-toeing a delicate diplomatic line concerning this dispute.
On January 18, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton affirmed that the disputed islands fell under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty when she stated during a press conference that “although the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, we acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration.”
Mrs. Clinton stated however that the United Stataes “urge[s] all parties to take steps to … manage disagreements through peaceful means.”
Concerning the recent Chinese-Japanese radar locking incident, Ms. Nuland stated on February 4, “we are concerned about it.”
Before these recent events however, Professor Hugh White bluntly commented, “don’t be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China next year” in his December 26, 2012 column in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Professor White summarizes the situation as a face-saving dilemma for China, Japan and the United States stating, “This will be difficult, because any concession by either side would so easily be seen as a back-down, with huge domestic political costs and international implications.”
According to Professor White, a Chinese back-down would persuade the Chinese public that China is not the rising power its government proclaims to be. For Japan, any concession on the disputed islands would show the world that Japan accepted “China’s right to push them around” and that Washington was helpless. For the United States, a back-down would signal that the new leader in the Pacific was no longer Washington, but Beijing.
Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College Jennifer M. Lind said that Professor White’s argument was “far from [an] off-the-wall argument.”
She compared the situation to the rise of Germany before the two world wars and the rise of the Soviet Union before the Cold War.
“There is a core argument in international relations theory that when there is a rising power and an established “hegemon” (meaning a country with a predominance of power in the world system), this is a particularly dangerous time in international relations.”
Professor Lind continued, “Historically, such situations (the rise of Germany before WWI, the rise of Japan in Asia, the rise of the Soviet Union, the rise of Germany again) have been associated with military crises and even great-power war.”
However, fellow Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College Daryl Press commented that if push came to shove, the United States would be unwilling to “wreck its relations with China and fight a maritime war over the Islands.”
“So if Beijing is obstinate, China probably can force the U.S. and Japan to accept China’s provocative actions.”
In a Monday blog titled, “7 Reasons China and Japan won’t go to war” on The Diplomat (a Tokyo-based Defense magazine), journalist Trefor Moss agreed with Professor Press’s thoughts. Among Mr. Moss’s reasons are the economic interdependence between the two countries (Japanese firms employ 5 million Chinese workers), the threat of U.S. intervention on Japan’s side, and the questionable combat capabilities of the Chinese military.
Mr. Moss concluded that both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s new head-of-state Xi Jinping would “not give ground on sovereignty issues” but that both politicians had “no interest in war.”
What would a modern China-Japan war be like?
Many experts and laymen have been discussing a potential China-Japan war scenario involving the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands since the mid-2000s, before the recent flare-up in the East China Sea.
In October 2010, the renowned Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution published a paper entitled “China-Japan Security Relations” by Richard C. Bush III, the Director for Brooking Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. In the paper, Mr. Bush discussed a potential China-Japan military conflict in detail, citing studies from the U.S. Navy done in 2005 and 2006.
According to the paper, the initial stages would entail the formation and deployment of Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces. Mr. Bush argues that the Chinese military’s traditional emphasis on preemption and initiative could compel the Chinese to strike first, but that the “longer the encounter goes on” the Japanese would inflict a “significant loss of life” on Chinese forces.
James R. Holmes, a former U.S. Navy officer and current defense analyst for The Diplomat, offered some different points. Although he admitted that the Japanese military would “acquit itself well” in a potential conflict with China, Mr. Holmes professed that if a war were to erupt today, “China would have the edge.”
Mr. Holmes told readers the Chinese naval and air forces would “cordon off” Japanese ground forces defending the disputed islands, after the Chinese gained air and sea supremacy. Such a blockade would eventually suffocate the defending ground forces by withholding vital supplies such as water and food.
In a separate article, Mr. Holmes articulated that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would avoid a decisive battle with the U.S Navy, refraining from any attack similar to Pearl Harbor or 9/11 that would be “necessary to rally a liberal republic like the United States around the battle flag.”
If, however, the United States did intervene, China would center their strategy on continued harassing attacks on U.S. ships. As U.S. military forces gradually approach the Chinese mainland, the Chinese would steadily increase the number and magnitude of such attacks. Mr. Holmes did not comment on who would be the final victor.
Analyses concerning such war scenarios are indeed interesting, and certainly relevant to the crisis in Northeast Asia. Perhaps though, phrases such as “significant loss of life” prove that de-escalation may be a step in the right direction. We wait to see how policymakers on both sides of the Pacific act to avoid war.
A word from 19th century British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell may remind us all of what many seem to be forgetting:
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”