It has been bubbling around out there, but if you haven’t been paying close attention, you might have missed the issue:
THIS is how wars usually start: with a steadily escalating stand-off over something intrinsically worthless. So don’t be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China next year over the uninhabited rocks that Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyu islands. And don’t assume the war would be contained and short.
Of course we should all hope that common sense prevails.
It seems almost laughably unthinkable that the world’s three richest countries – two of them nuclear-armed – would go to war over something so trivial. But that is to confuse what starts a war with what causes it. The Greek historian Thucydides first explained the difference almost 2500 years ago. He wrote that the catastrophic Peloponnesian War started from a spat between Athens and one of Sparta’s allies over a relatively insignificant dispute. But what caused the war was something much graver: the growing wealth and power of Athens, and the fear this caused in Sparta…
China is feeling its oats and, also, with grave economic, political and demographic problems, striking out in a foreign adventure might appeal to a Chinese ruling class which has no legitimate basis for its continued rule but which has so far proven unwilling to set in motion steps to create a legitimate government in China. Japan, on the other hand, is rich and happy and not wanting to fight, but also fears that if they let China get her way on this then China will forever push Japan around. The United States, on the other other hand, cannot afford to let China push Japan around because that would undercut our entire position not just in Asia, but the entire western Pacific…no one would rely on us if we left Japan in the lurch and everyone would scramble to make the best deal with could with China. Certainly, there are the ingredients for war.
But there won’t be one. At least, not right now.
China is in much the same position as imperial Germany was early in the 20th century – feeling stronger and frustrated that their growing strength has not led to their dominance of the globe. Back then, Germany felt that Britain – governing one quarter of the earth’s surface but viewed by Germans as increasingly flabby – was the block in the road. And, so, Germany wanted to challenge Britain – but couldn’t because the German army couldn’t get at Britain while the German navy wasn’t sufficient to beat the British navy (then, by far, the largest navy in the world). China might want to make some nationalist hay over the Senkakus but when push comes to shove, they are islands and the Chinese navy is simply entirely inferior to the United States navy (and probably couldn’t even beat the Japanese navy, either). A Sino-American war right now would only have one very swift result – the destruction of China’s navy and a return to the status quo ante (there is zero chance that any American government would sanction sending an American army to mainland China). Unless the rulers of China are the most monumentally stupid people in the world, they know this and so as long as the US and Japan remain firm (but polite and willing to provide a face-saving solution) then the Chinese will ultimately back down.
China is, of course, aware of her naval weakness – and so has built one aircraft carrier and looks to build more, while also steadily upgrading their other surface and submarine forces. As absolutely no one threatens China’s sea communications the only possible use China can have for a first class navy is to challenge the United States. And as a matter of fact, all of China’s military build up indicates only one thing: at some future point, the government of China envisions war with the United States. Not a war to the death like the World Wars, but a war to kick America out of east Asia and the western Pacific (China has asserted that their sphere of influence includes the Marianas Islands – a commonwealth of the United States, but also including the US territory of Guam). We’ll have to see how that comes out and US diplomacy should be geared towards solidifying our alliances in the area while military preparations should work on destroying the Chinese navy and blockading the Chinese coast. But, meanwhile, not much to worry about. For the moment.