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Escalating territorial tension in East Asia echoes Europe’s descent into world war

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In Brief

The recent activation of Chinese weapons radars aimed at Japanese military platforms around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is the latest in a series of incidents in which China has asserted its power and authority at the expense of its neighbours.

The radars cue supersonic missile systems and give those on the receiving end only a split second to respond.


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With Japanese law empowering local military commanders with increased discretion to respond (thanks to North Korea’s earlier provocations), such incidents could easily escalate. In an era of well-established UN-related adjudication bodies like the International Court of Justice (ICJ), how has it come to this? These incidents disconcertingly echo past events.

In the early years of the 20th century, most pundits considered a major war between the great powers a remote possibility. Several incidents prior to 1914 were handled locally or successfully defused by diplomats from countries with alliances that appeared to guarantee the peace. After all, never before had the world been so interconnected — thanks to advanced communications technology and burgeoning trade. But alliance ties and perceived national interests meant that once a major war was triggered there was little hope of avoiding the conflict. Germany’s dissatisfaction with the constraints under which it operated arguably was a principal cause of war in 1914. Similarly, Japan’s dissatisfaction helped trigger massive conflict a generation later.

A century on, many of the same observations can be made in East Asia. China’s rise is coupled with a disturbing surge in jingoism across East and Southeast Asia. China resents the territorial resolution of World War II, in which the United States handed responsibility for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to Japan while large chunks of the South China Sea were claimed and occupied by countries that emerged in Southeast Asia’s post-colonial order. Oil and gas reserves are attractive reasons for China to assert itself, but challenging the US place in East Asian waters is the main objective. China resents American ‘re-balancing ‘as an attempt at ‘containment’, even though US dependence on Chinese trade and finance makes that notion implausible. China is pushing the boundaries of the accepted post-Second World War order championed by the United States and embodied by the UN.

China’s rapid rise and long-held grievances mean its powerbrokers are reluctant to use institutions like the ICJ. But China’s assertiveness is driving regional states closer into the arms of the United States. Intimidation and assertive maritime acts have been carried out, ostensibly by elements not linked to China’s armed forces. China’s white-painted Chinese Maritime Services and Fisheries Law Enforcement Command vessels operating in the South China Sea and around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have evoked strong reactions.

But Japan’s recent allegation that China used active radars is a significant escalation. Assuming it happened, this latest move could trigger a stronger reaction from Japan. China looks increasingly as if it is not prepared to abide by UN-related conventions. International law has been established mostly by powers China sees as having exploited it during its ‘century of humiliation’. Yet arguably, it is in the defence of these international institutions that the peaceful rise of China is most likely to be assured. China’s refusal to submit to such mechanisms as the ICJ increases the prospect of conflict.

For the moment, Japan’s conservative prime minister will need to exercise great skill and restraint in managing domestic fear and resentment over China’s assertiveness and the military’s hair-trigger defence powers. A near-term escalation cannot be ruled out. After all, Japan recognises that China is not yet ready to inflict a major military defeat on Japan without resorting to nuclear weapons and without triggering a damaging response from the United States. And Japan does not want to enter into such a conflict without strong US support, at least akin to the discreet support given to Britain in the Falklands War in 1982. Consequently, Japan may see an escalation sooner rather than later as being in its interests, particularly if China appears the aggressor.

China’s domestic environment has nurtured jingoism. The Chinese state has built up the public’s appetite for vengeance against Japan by manipulating films and history textbooks. On the other hand, Chinese authorities recognise that the peaceful rise advocated by Deng Xiaoping is not yet complete (militarily at least). In the meantime it is prudent to exercise some restraint to avoid an overwhelming and catastrophic response. If the 1914–18 war taught us anything, it is that the outcome of wars is rarely as proponents conceived at the outset.

Dr John Blaxland is Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University.

Rikki Kersten is Professor of modern Japanese political history in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

This article was originally published here by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

6 responses to “Escalating territorial tension in East Asia echoes Europe’s descent into world war”

  1. V. interesting article and perspective. But it assumes the Japanese line that Chinese vessels recently locked their radars against Japanese vessels, something that the Chinese have gone out of their way at the highest level to deny (I wish we could have an accurate military intelligence assessment of this “incident”). It also raises the issue of the International Court of Justice and why China has not gone down this route to seek to resolve the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, but it is my understanding that the ICJ needs two to tango, and Japan has refused to do so arguing (as Abe did last week) that there is “no dispute”.

    Finally, in the final paragraph, the authors argue that “The Chinese state has built up the public’s appetite for vengeance against Japan by manipulating films and history textbooks”. That’s a rather one sided judgment. Are they talking about the Japanese Education Ministry or the Chinese state? I am not aware of film manipulation by the Chinese, although Chinese account of Japanese imperial history in China can be highly ideological yet basically more accurate than what one finds in Japan nowadays.

  2. In response to NE Asia Watcher: The recent weapons radar incident has been confirmed by the US Dept. of State. As for textbooks and films: yes, Japan is saddled with a poor reputation for its treatment of history textbook content on WWII. What we do NOT hear about though is the tireless efforts of grassroots organizations such as Net 21 to enforce accuracy, especially regarding Japan’s atrocities during WWII, in history textbook content. China suffers from similar state-driven interference in its history textbooks, but unlike Japan, has not yet been called to account for this, certainly not by any citizen’s movements or by the international comunity. NE Asia Watcher is correct that the ICJ does require both sides of a dispute to lodge a case before it, and given Japan’s position, this is unlikely to occur. But the issue is fluid, and we should all watch this space.

    • AS far as I’m aware, the US has only accepted Japan’s version of the incident which falls short of a US confirmation of a weapons lock-on.
      Any evidence to confirm the ‘lock-on’ and lay the matter to rest one way or another is yet to be brought into the public domain either from the Japanese government or from the US State Department.
      Surely, it can’t be that hard

  3. In addition to comments from ‘NE Asia watcher’:

    1. With the arguable exception of Vietnam and the Philippines, Hiliary Clinton’s foray into Asia during her last year in office totally failed to drive ‘regional states closer into the arms of the United States’which has created a quandary for the US pivot to Asia.

    2. Japan so far has shown reluctance to publicly publish the evidence of a weapons lock-on by Chinese vessels.

    3. If Japan does not want to enter a war with China without US help, then it remains debateable that it could win especially considering the combat radius advantage of the Diaoyu Islands to China and without going into the logistics of Japan’s military dependence on oil shipments through the China seas.

    4. There is no level of manipulation of films and textbooks that could negate the reality of Japanese brutality during their past forays into China, the Korean Penisula and other SE Asian regions. It beggars belief that one would present such an implication.

    • Tony Xiao,
      Thanks for raising these four points. It is good to discuss them. In response, I offer the following comments:
      – On (1), you should look at Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand as well. They are also concerned at China’s willingness to act unilaterally and to disrupt ASEAN cohesion over the SCS. They have all made discrete overtures to the United states largely out of concern over China’s unilateral approach.
      – On (2) Rikki addressed this on the US DoS statement. Enough said.
      – On (3) I think we would ALL lose if any side seriously thought there was an advantage to be gained form allowing an outbreak of war over the disputed islands.
      – On (4) There is a real issue with containing the consequences of past errors. The war against Japan ended nearly 70 years ago. They have already paid a heavy price for their mistakes, with much of their country obliterated. No current leader was directly or even indirectly involved so current political players can’t be held responsible for something that occurred two-to-three generations ago. As a historian, I understand the need to be informed by history. But we should strive to avoid allowing our history to determine our fate indefinitely. All sides need to be very circumspect in how they use their history to avoid unduly fomenting resentment that can fuel jingoism and a hunger for war.

  4. Transcript from State Department Q&A:

    QUESTION: Since the radar lock-on issue occurred between the Chinese ship locking on its fire-controlled radar on the Japanese ship, the Chinese Government response has been that they – it is a part of a so-called propaganda war by Japan- that they did not do this, and that in fact their ship had its – was locked onto their Chinese ship. They also apparently released some elaborate evidence of this, which seems to be a forgery.

    My question is: The Japanese Government has said this is completely inappropriate and is demanding an apology. What is the position of the U.S. on this?

    MS. NULAND (US State Department): Well, with regard to the incident, we were briefed by our Japanese allies on the incident and we’ve satisfied ourselves that it does appear to have happened. As you know, I said at the time that we have been quite clear about our concern with regard to this with our Chinese interlocutors.

    QUESTION: Well, earlier, if I can follow up, earlier, Secretary Clinton issued a kind of a warning, saying that the Chinese side should do nothing to hamper or to undermine the Japanese administration of the Senkakus. Does this warning carry over now to the Secretary Kerry’s time in office?

    MS. NULAND: It does indeed, and let me say it again: We urge all parties to avoid actions that could raise tensions or result in miscalculation that would undermine peace, security, and economic growth of this vital part of the world.

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