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History repeating

Japanese Coast Guard patrol the waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Photo by Al Jazeera English on flickr.
06 February 2013
Japanese Coast Guard patrol the waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Photo by Al Jazeera English on flickr.

Escalating territorial tension in East Asia echoes Europe’s descent into world war, write JOHN BLAXLAND and RIKKI KERSTEN. 

The recent activation of Chinese weapons radars aimed at Japanese military platforms around the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands (as they are known respectively by the Japanese and Chinese claimants) is the latest in a series of incidents in which China has asserted its power and authority at the expense of its neighbours. Responsible for cueing supersonic missile systems, such radars give those on the receiving end only a split second to respond. With Japanese law empowering local military commanders with increased discretion to respond (thanks to North Korea’s earlier provocations) such incidents could easily escalate.  Yet 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 twentieth 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 with 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 later, 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 shackles of history which saw the United States hand responsibility for the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to Japan and which left large chunks of the South China Sea 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 United States’ 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 world order championed by the United States and epitomised by the United Nations.

To China’s power-brokers, the rapid rise and long-held grievances warrant circumventing institutions like the ICJ. But China’s assertiveness and unwillingness to address its grievances through the Court are 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, the recent use of active radars is a significant escalation. 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 established mostly by powers it sees as having exploited China in its century-long moment of weakness from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Yet arguably, it is in the defence of these institutions that the peaceful rise of China is most likely to be assured. In the absence of China’s willingness to submit to such mechanisms as the ICJ, the prospect of conflict increases.

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 yet 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 discrete 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 challenges also are vulnerable to exploitation by a jingoistic rallying call against foreign bogeymen. Indeed, the Chinese state has built up an appetite for vengeance against Japan through its manipulation of films, and history textbooks. On the other hand, Chinese authorities recognise that the peaceful rise advocated by Deng Xiao Ping is not yet complete (militarily at least). In the meantime it is prudent to exercise some restraint to avoid an overwhelming and catastrophic response. Australia has an important role to play in advocating restraint on both sides and encouraging China to see that its rise is best achieved through collaboration and through operating within the parameters of established institutions such as the UN and the ICJ. If the 1914-18 war taught us anything, we know that the outcome of wars is rarely as proponents conceived at the outset.

Dr John Blaxland is a military historian based at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Professor Rikki Kersten is an expert in modern Japanese history, security and foreign policy and is based in the College’s Department of Political and Social Change.


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