China and Japan: The drums of war are beating in East Asia

Tensions continue to rise between Japan and China in the East China Sea. In the latest exchange of harsh accusations over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Japanese Ministry of Defense issued a strong statement in which Tokyo charged the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s naval vessels trained their “fire-control” radars used to help direct weapons on a Japanese naval destroyer and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force’s military helicopters near the disputed islands.

Because using such fire-control radar can precede an attack, the Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera declared on Feb. 7 that Chinese navy’s locking fire-control radars onto Japanese vessel and helicopters must be considered a “threat of force,” banned under the U.N. Charter, and such threats “have pushed things into a dangerous situation.” On the same day, the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated in Washington that the China-Japan situation is one “that could ultimately get out of hand.”

In return, Global Times, Beijing’s mouth-piece, has accused Japan’s radar target protest a “war signal.” “Japan,” according to the Global Times, “is exploiting an incident in which a Chinese ship used weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese naval vessel and helicopter to prepare its people for war. Chinese people are used to tension in the East China Sea and many are already prepared for the ‘first shot’ of conflict. Fewer people hold hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”

And an “increasingly hawkish rhetoric is coming from senior officers in the People’s Liberation Army,” writes David Lague of Reuters, “the combative streak speaks to profound shifts in Chinese politics and foreign policy that transcend the heat of the moment. The more provocative of these officers call for ‘short, sharp wars’ to assert China’s sovereignty. Others urge Beijing to ‘strike first’, ‘prepare for conflict’ or ‘kill a chicken to scare the monkeys’.”

“The Chinese ship ultimately unlocked its radar without firing a shot,” reports the Washington Post, “but the incident underscores how the two neighbors – wrangling over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea – are just one mistake away from potential armed conflict. The recent radar incidents are among the first to involve naval warships from both nations, which had until now been kept in the background to avoid a dangerous escalation. With tensions so high, military experts in Japan and the United States say their biggest fear is some accident or miscalculation resulting in an unintended military confrontation.”

Indeed, China may well stumble into a war with Japan over some rocky, deserted islands in the East China Sea. Watching television and reading news in China these days, one cannot help but to conclude that the outbreak of war with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands is only a matter of time.

“In 2013, the greatest risk of conflict does not lie in the halls of the U.S. Congress, on the battlefield in Syria nor the rising rhetoric between Iran and the international community,” Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, told CNN, “China-Japan is by far the most important and consequential geopolitical conflict on our screen for the entire year of 2013.”

“The rise of China has enormous implications for both economic conflict and political conflict because this is a poor country, an authoritarian country and a state capitalist country – and by the time China becomes the world’s largest economy, surpassing the United States, those fundamental qualities of China will not particularly change,” says Bremmer, “here you have a situation: for many decades where Americans felt that China’s rise was in their interest – already Japan understands that China’s rise is not in its interest, it is a bad thing. Increasingly the U.S. is very, very conflicted.”

A Chinese-Japanese war will send the world into a serious economic depression. Even if armed clashes can be averted, tensions will persist. And the back-and-forth between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea will continue to ratchet up, preventing any diplomatic solution to the confrontation. Hitoshi Tanaka of the Institute for International Strategy in Tokyo has listed three essential elements of any easing between the world’s second and third largest economies: to cool public sentiment, to reaffirm the importance of the bilateral relationship, and to find a way of discussing the Senkaku/Diaoyu crisis.

Sadly, not a single one of these elements is yet in sight.

Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.