Klein's Commentary

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Red Lines in the East China Sea

East China Sea[Short version on CNN GPS]

In many parts of the world the long curve of history continues dragging nations back to the brink of war. Take Northeast Asia where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and resource rich waters nearby has become the latest potential flashpoint.

What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to fire warning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. has weighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan’s administration of the area.

If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.

Neither side shows any signs of compromise with Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s Prime Minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. In a January International Crisis Group report  Stephanie Kleine-Albrandt notes that:

“While neither Beijing nor Tokyo desires a major conflict, their tacit agreement to set aside the dispute has been broken and there is deepening pessimism on both sides over the prospects of a peaceful settlement.”

As Bill Bishop points out in his daily Sinocism report, stepping back from the brink becomes increasingly difficult.

“China’s relentless media campaign since the summer, the anti-Japanese teachings so prevalent in the Chinese education system and the imperative of any new leadership to not look weak, especially toward the Japanese, could mean that if an accident did occur, especially one that resulted in the death of a Chinese citizen, Beijing might have so painted itself into a corner that it would have respond with force…”

The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind including any real shots fired by the increasing number of naval ships (both Chinese and Japanese) now plying the nearby waters or jets flying overhead. Similarly if either side attempts to land on the islands the other side will counter with a landing of their own. Calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.

Complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries it was the trading hub of the region and an imperial power coercing its neighbors into paying annual tribute for peace and security. To be fair, the long arc of Chinese history also includes imperial dynasties that eschewed regional intervention – a fact currently lost on current policymakers.

Schools to this day continuing painting the country as a weak, aggrieved nation. The lesson: China must defend itself against a mythical recurrence of exploitation at the hands of foreign powers. These slights of history dating back to early 1900’s treaty ports (a time of unequal trading relations) are re-lived as if they were yesterday. Yet, the more recent reign of Mao Tse Tung driving the country into devastating famine, financial ruin and global isolation gains barely a footnote.

The cognitive dissonance between present day reality: China as the world’s second largest economy, with one of the world’s largest militaries and more than equal inclusion in the global trading system; and views of a distant, weakened past continue influencing China’s foreign policy. In Japan as well, historical revisionists continue celebrating war criminals at Yasakuni Shrine. The current administration has also contemplated changing its account of the use of sex slaves during World War II.

On a limited but positive note Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell has been making the regional rounds calling for dialogue.

For now at least lines of communication remain open while both sides try to reign in their political extremes. Space for rational discussion, however continues shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol. If push comes to literal shove the damage to the region and international trade could be devastating.

Conflict has never been pre-ordained. It is the result of decisions, by people, to follow a course into crisis. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities and Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets. The past should not be forgotten, but neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that’s not a lesson lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.

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Brian • January 23, 2013


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