China’s Dispute with Japan

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The world’s second and third largest economies, and the two most important Asian countries, continue to be involved in a territorial dispute over five small islands. What are the likely consequences of this dispute? Is war on the horizon? The present dispute may not be easy to unravel. The Chinese are not known for strategic directness, and so, when they attempt to directly pursue an object we should begin to wonder if something else isn’t at stake. Perhaps it is something we have missed.

The disputed Senkaku Islands are presently uninhabited. They are known to China as the Diaoyu Islands, and are located approximately 330 kilometers from mainland China and 410 kilometers from the Japanese-held Ryukyu Islands. Specifically, the island chain consists of five islands (one of which had been the site of a Japanese fish processing plant from 1910 until 1940). According to a United Nations report, there may be large oil and gas deposits under the seabed near the islands.

Although the Obama Administration does not officially support Japan’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan may obligate the United States to defend Japan militarily in the event of a conflict. It is curious, to be sure, that Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits Tokyo from using force to settle international disputes. Strictly speaking, Japan is not supposed to have armed forces. Article 9 states, “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Paragraph two says, “To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

It is one of those jokes of history that we find a country with a pacifist constitution in possession of an army, air force and navy. Of course, these forces are not very large or threatening; yet they may be capable of repulsing an invasion of the Senkaku Islands. This is not so amazing, however, when we learn that China was the primary motivating factor behind Japan’s partial rearmament. 

With the Chinese-backed Communist invasion of South Korea in 1950, the United States was forced to pull troops out of Japan for the defense of South Korea. It then became necessary for Japan to pick up the slack of defending its own shores. As General Douglas MacArthur’s staff wrote (in large part) Japan’s 1947 Constitution, the subsequent negation of Article 9 was effectively set in motion when MacArthur ordered the Japanese to create a 75,000 strong National Police Reserve which was, in reality, a force for repelling a Communist invasion.

In subsequent decades the Japanese Defense Forces developed both naval and air power. At first the force’s military role was hardly admitted. They were called “police,” and their tanks were referred to as “special vehicles.” Despite legal challenges, the Supreme Court of Japan has underscored the constitutionality of national self-defense. In 1954 the National Safety Agency was renamed the Japan Defense Agency and the national Police Reserve was thenceforth called the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Today these forces have roughly a quarter of a million personnel. This is quite small when compared with the People’s Liberation Army of China – which is the world’s largest standing military force, with more than 2.25 million active duty personnel. Add to this China’s status as a nuclear power and you will see that Japan is seriously outgunned.

But wars are no longer won by the side with mere numerical superiority. A conflict over the Senkaku Islands would be a naval conflict, where China’s preponderant ground forces would not come into play and Japan’s superior technological prowess could be decisive. A battle at sea would be decided by aircraft, ships and missiles. The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force specializes in mine clearing and anti-submarine warfare operations and has 110 warships, including 4 helicopter carriers and 16 attack submarines. The Chinese navy, however, has 515 warships -- including 63 submarines, 75 principal surface combatants, plus an aircraft carrier.

As naval warfare under present circumstances involves a host of unknowns, it is impossible to say which side would win a war at sea. All things being equal, China has the edge and might easily occupy the islands with paratroops before Japan could react. But then there is the vast naval power of the United States, which has a security treaty with Japan. More than anything else, the Senkaku Island dispute reveals or fails to reveal President Obama’s readiness to support Japan. But this readiness is nowhere apparent. Officially, the U.S. State Department says that America has not taken a position on the Senkaku Island dispute.

This latter fact is decisive, and a great deal follows from it. While Chinese military leaders have made a stream of bellicose statements for the Chinese state-run media, China’s civilian leaders have appeared more conciliatory and statesmanlike. This better comports with advice given by the ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu: “Knowing when one can and cannot do battle is victory.” In this case battle is not the immediate objective – though a longer-range objective is most certainly kept in sight.

There is always a political subtext at work in Chinese military rhetoric. We should not rule out the possibility that China will use its claim on the islands in order to obtain something from Japan which nobody is immediately expecting. In other words, we may be witnessing a maneuver in which the strategic positions of Japan and the United States are psychological mapped. That is to say, the readiness of the Americans to support Japan or acquiesce to China may be the objective here. After all, what is more important: some idiotic little islands or the relationship between Japan and America?  

The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “Knowing the other and knowing oneself, in one hundred battles no danger is found.” It should occur to China watchers that this dispute is along the lines of an exploration of Japanese and American psychology in terms of Asian politics. The value of these islands cannot be greater than knowing the character of the Japanese leadership, or the character of America’s leadership. Such knowledge may be the real prize in this dispute.  

One must also consider the economic game, as well. The dispute over the islands is hurting Japan’s exports to China, which fell 12 percent as of last November and coincides with a second consecutive quarter of Japanese GDP contraction. Why shouldn’t the Chinese leaders make conciliatory noises? The Japanese politicians will doubtless prove responsive when treated respectfully and offered a closer “partnership” with Beijing. This is especially true if they feel abandoned by their American allies.

Nobody knows what is going to happen in the next few months, but we should not expect that the dispute over the Senkaku Islands is a straightforward affair. We must consider the possibility that tensions have been created by China for the purpose of relieving them in a profitable way – and in a strategically advantageous manner.

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About JR Nyquist