Greg Austin: Mounting China-Japan Tensions

Commentary | December 03, 2013

EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin identifies three unaddressed structural elements that have contributed to recent mounting tensions between China and Japan in his newest contribution to EWI’s Policy Innovation Blog. Austin makes the following recommendation: “There has to be a laser-sharp focus on three lines of action: the atmospherics of conflict, possible catalysts for a combat action, and the institutions of regional order.”

Hostile rhetoric and military contingency planning by China and Japan in respect of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are at their most serious since the dispute first surfaced in 1970. It may be said that diplomacy has worked well so far in avoiding serious conflict, but in fact the two countries were never interested in any action that had a high risk of provoking a military confrontation. Times have changed.

Some leaders in each country believe that provocations by the other side demand a robust response and that the appearance of a back down in favor of a return to calm would be seen as an historic concession of weakness. The conflict potential of this situation is serious. Diplomacy is failing because it has failed to provide an answer to three related problems of a structural kind that are aggravating the perceptions gap between the parties.

The first of these unaddressed problems is the interaction between the rise of China and the normalization of Japan’s foreign and security policy. Both have unmistakable military dimensions that are conflict-enhancing. The impulse on the part of China to modernize its armed forces and to expand its navy is both natural and understandable. Equally, the impulse in Japan to normalize its security policy and calibrate its naval development against regional powers like China is also reasonable. The two trends are however taking place as mistrust between the two countries reaches an historic four-decade high. There is an active territorial dispute: never a happy situation when countries are so mistrustful and stepping up military modernization. In China, there has been a visible increase inside military circles and among the population of hostile rhetoric towards Japan. In Japan, for almost two decades, some opinion leaders have been gradually talking the country into the position of likely first victim of an attack by the modernizing Chinese armed forces.        

The second unaddressed problem is the impact of the Taiwan issue on perceptions and policies of both sides. This is being felt at two levels, both very tough to manage. On the one hand, the mainland government believes that since Taiwan is so robust on the territorial dispute with Japan, then it cannot afford to take a more quiescent line lest the Taiwanese authorities be seen within China as a better defender of national dignity than the government in Beijing. On the other hand, the drift of Taiwan to closer economic integration with the mainland and the very visible move away from military options by China has unsettled power balances in the region. Some in Japan now see a “unified China” as an economic and military power they don’t even want to begin to contemplate.   

The third is the unsettling impact of developments in regional security order, not least on the Korean peninsula, in the South China Sea, and in the United States determination to reassert its military power in East Asia as a hedge against the rise of China. For most of the last 25 years, this region was a much less confrontational one than it is today. Leading the charge to confrontation is North Korea, now armed with nuclear weapons and long range missiles, undertaking occasional military provocations, and undergoing a shaky leadership transition. New tensions in the South China Sea are seen as proof for some that China is pushing for regional military hegemony, or at the very least is too prone to use military force against weaker neighbors.

Above all else, the decision of the Obama administration to make East Asia the central focus for application of its overwhelming military power has aggravated Chinese concerns and emboldened advocates in Japan for more robust military posture.    

The seriousness of the lack of attention to these problems is heightened by the length of time some of these factors have been in play. There has been a steady erosion of confidence about the peaceful intentions of regional actors for almost two decades. This weakening of the urge to accommodation and conflict avoidance is all the more remarkable because it flies in the face of deepening economic and social integration in East Asia.

What to do? It seems that there are historic forces in play here that are inevitable and irreversible. The only answer is for military actors of the region to manage the trends better collectively. There has to be a laser-sharp focus on three lines of action: the atmospherics of conflict, possible catalysts for a combat action, and the institutions of regional order.

Governments and civil society actors need to call out the negative trends in hate speech and hold governments accountable for it. In the case of China, outspoken military officers provoking conflict need to be seriously disciplined and brought into line. In Japan, those who deny Japan’s war history and those exaggerating Chinese military aggressiveness – although more subtle a force and less subject to government control – need to be countered comprehensively. If either government is fostering this hostile rhetoric for its own purposes, then it needs to take better stock of how much the danger of conflict is inflamed by it.

On the catalysts for combat, all parties need to work to reverse the militarization of the territorial dispute.  The declaration by China of an air defense identification zone has been escalatory but given what Japan and the United States have been doing and saying, one might see good reasons why they did it. But avoidance of a military clash in this case is more important than who is right or wrong in particular actions.

The institutions of regional security order need to be modernized. The ASEAN Regional Forum has been useful but for Northeast Asian problems it has outlived its time. The current informal institutions of East Asia, such as APEC, grew up beginning in the 1990s when Asia was not ready for a hard-edged and definitive settlement of the kind represented by the Helsinki Accords in Europe in 1975. Nor would we want to inflict on East Asia a model like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Shangri-La Dialogue at Ministerial or Chief of Staff level has been important in this region. But it needs to graduate. East Asia, or more narrowly Northeast Asia, needs a standing, military-based dialogue channel that meets often, is broad-based and is far more alert than existing forums to the risk of a military clash between Japan and China and the dangers that it might bring. We need to work a lot harder to keep the peace between Japan and China.

Greg Austin is a Professorial Fellow in the EastWest Institute and Director of its Policy Innovation Unit. 

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Click here to read the article in China Focus.