VIEW: China-Japan showdown likely


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Now China wants to establish its sway over the South China Sea and over the disputed (with Japan) islands in the East China Sea

The spat between China and Japan over disputed sovereignty on a group of small islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkakus by the Japanese and Diaoyus in China, is taking dangerous overtones. China is sending planes and surveillance vessels to test its claims, with Japan taking counter-measures. Taiwan too has entered the fray, as the alternative China, with Japanese firing water cannons at a Taiwanese boat carrying a group of activists wanting to land on the disputed islands. The situation is further complicated with the outgoing US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, recently coming out clearly on Japan’s side, stating that the islands “are under the administration of Japan” and hence protected under the 1960 US-Japan security treaty. In other words, Japan can invoke this treaty if China were to take military action to wrest the islands from Japan.
The US position is not surprising. What is surprising is that it has been so clearly enunciated by the US secretary of state, while China was hoping that it might at least continue the pretence of neutrality, calling upon both countries to resolve it through peaceful means. Not surprisingly, China “resolutely opposes” Clinton’s remarks, with its news agency, Xinhua, calling it “foolish” for Washington “to throw support behind Japan” in the islands dispute. China has been brimming with confidence, but the US’s open support for Japan will compound the dangers.
Looking back at the historical experience of the two major powers of our times, Britain and the United States, the dominance over oceans and sea-lanes was a prerequisite for regional and global primacy. Indeed, this is how China was humbled during the opium wars of the 19th century and reduced to a semi-colonial status. Now China wants to establish its sway over the South China Sea and over the disputed (with Japan) islands in the East China Sea.
When the communists won the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the US was the dominant military power ruling the waves in much of the world in the midst of a Cold War, with China on the Soviet side. After intense internal ideological and power struggles, and a serious rift with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s overlapping into the 1980s, China started to emerge slowly as a power in its own right under the stewardship of Deng Xiaoping. Deng was a practical leader with emphasis on learning from facts and not too infatuated with communist ideology, though he was a strong upholder of the Party’s monopoly on power. He wanted to modernise China and build it into a strong and powerful nation. But he also advised that China should bide its time while building its strength.
Deng’s successors obviously believe that the time has come for China to assert and reclaim its power and national interests. And these interests include recovering what it perceives to have been historically its sovereign territories and waters in the South China Sea and other maritime territories, including the Senkaku/Diayou islands, controlled by Japan. In the regional political power play, China once had an advantage over Japan as its atrocious war record in China and other Asian countries created a kind of aggrieved brotherhood, revived now and then over specific issues like the ‘comfort women’, Asian prostitutes that Japanese soldiers used during wartime.
But with China’s rise and its determination to consolidate and expand its power, it is now simultaneously involved in sovereignty disputes over islands in the South China with a number of regional countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and others, and with Japan in the East China Sea. That is creating an aggrieved brotherhood of a different kind against China, with Japan increasingly regarded favourably. The most welcoming of Japan in this respect is the Philippines, with its own serious maritime dispute with China. Japan and the Philippines have become strategic partners agreeing to collaborate to resolve their territorial disputes with China. And they have expressed ‘mutual concern’ about China’s increasingly assertive claims.
Vietnam is another country with a serious maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea, and has lately drawn strategically close to the United States. Both Japan and the Philippines have their security pacts with the United States, as does Australia. But Japan is not without its own problems, arising from a serious maritime dispute with South Korea, which too is a US ally. The US has been urging both its allies to resolve their dispute but the signs so far are not propitious.
Even without the US security connection, Japan is not an inconsequential power, though constrained militarily because of the US-imposed post-WW11 pacifist constitution. There has been a slow erosion of that position, with US support, as Washington has been urging Japan for quite some years to play an important regional military role as its ally. With Shinzo Abe as Japan’s new prime minister, known for his ultra-nationalist views, Japan will raise its defence expenditure and take measures to get rid of the relevant constitutional provision constraining its military power.
China is already an ascendant military power with its defence budget reportedly doubling over the last six years. It seems determined to uphold its perceived national interests, which is its great strength with the Chinese people. While the government might not be playing the military band, the country’s senior military officers are not holding back their frank views. This was recently the case with Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu of China’s National Defence University in an interview with John Garnaut, China correspondent of The Sydney Morning Herald. He said colourfully, “America is the global tiger and Japan is Asia’s wolf and both are now madly biting China.” He hypothetically raised a scenario of nuclear retaliation by raising the WW11 analogy when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and asked, “…how do you know it wouldn’t receive another nuclear bomb?” And said, “The world would hail if Japan receives such a [nuclear] blow.” He amplified, “I don’t want to mention China here [presumably, the country that might deliver the blow], as it is sensitive.” And he had a message for Australia not to follow the US or Japan into any military conflict, saying, “Australia should never “play the jackal for the tiger or dance with the wolf.”
Though Colonel Liu said his views did not represent government policy, at the same time he emphasised that his views were consistent with what the political and military leaders thought, if not what they said. In addition to the interview, Liu also provided written comments accusing the US of creating “a mini-NATO” to contain China, with the US and Japan at its core and Australia within its orbit.
Having taken such a strong public stand on the sovereignty issue, the Chinese government would find it difficult to retreat from that position. Japan will equally be averse to making its sovereignty over the islands an open issue. If so, China and Japan are heading for a showdown of some sorts in the not-too-distant future. And that won’t be pretty regionally and globally.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at


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