succumb to internecine warfare a mere century after Europe did? Most observers
would argue that this outcome 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” (ADIZ) that covers territory also
claimed by Japan, including the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (which China
calls 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 UN 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
Three days after
China announced its ADIZ, the United States deployed two B-52 bombers to the
zone without notifying China, and on December 5, a U.S. Navy warship and a
Chinese vessel nearly collided in the South China Sea.
On December 17,
Japan released its first national-security strategy, in which it pledged 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.
to escalate. What happens 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?
are many compelling grounds for optimism. For one thing, 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.
much the traumas of the past might color their relationship, the growth in
their economic interdependence continues apace. Richard Katz argues that
“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.”
United States would almost certainly intervene in the event of a Sino–Japanese
clash. China and Japan understand that no good can conceivably 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 a Sino–Japanese clash?
First, impulse can
prevail over even the most considered cost–benefit analysis.
Second, it is
impossible to know what event might propel tensions beyond the reach of
restraint. (No one can explain why the
assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, rather than any number of 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 the
trends that increase the likelihood that such a trigger will happen in the
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 December 26 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine
elicited in China). The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,
meanwhile, fear that they will have to “choose” between the United States and
China in due course. The existence of the European Union serves to constrain
any member country that would countenance another Great Power conflict in Eurasia,
but no comparable Asian community has emerged.
While it is most
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 necessary energy
to challenges such as environmental degradation and resource shortages. Even if
war does not occur, moreover, sustained tension – between the United States and
China, and between China and Japan – could undermine cooperation between the
United States and China as well as nascent efforts to form the skeleton of an
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 (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 2013). The Mark News