Reader response: China and Japan – let’s take a step back from the brink
12 Feb 2013|
Let's take a step back from the brink

Ben Schreer takes a hard-nosed approach to his analysis of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute in his recent post, but I don’t think I can agree with him.

First and foremost, despite his criticism of China I think Ben’s assessment actually gives too much credit to Beijing. He portrays a China that’s methodically ‘probing’ its way towards ruling the waves of the Western Pacific. He sees China implementing a coherent and sophisticated strategy involving the coordinated use of maritime surveillance, coast guard vessels and more conventional naval assets.

Ben might well be right. But for an alternative perspective, readers might also be interested in an excellent new report just released by Linda Jakobsen at the Lowy Institute. A seasoned China watcher, Linda characterises the new Xi Jinping leadership as one plagued by domestic pressures and internally focused as a consequence. This interpretation stands in marked contrast to Ben’s assessment, which—while acknowledging in passing the possibility of internal fissures—sees China as an externally focused, largely unitary actor that is pursuing a coherent grand strategic vision.

Linda’s analysis resonates with an oft-cited International Crisis Group report, published in 2012, that exposes conflicting mandates and a lack of coordination amongst Chinese government agencies—the so-called ‘nine dragons’—involved in the South China Sea. Yet Ben anticipates that the current, coherent pattern of Chinese maritime behaviour in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute will play out similarly in the South China Sea. What’s interesting, however, is just how different China’s approach to these two friction points has been. Where in the East China Sea exchanges between Beijing and Tokyo have quickly escalated to involve the use of military ships and aircraft, Chinese tactics in the South China Sea have by and large remained confined to the use of maritime patrol vessels.

Second, Ben is quick to blame Beijing for rising tensions in the East China Sea. Such analysis will certainly play well in Tokyo, and perhaps also in some Washington and Canberra quarters. But the view from China is a very different one. Beijing could reasonably claim, for instance, that current tensions in the East China Sea stem from Tokyo’s September 2012 decision—albeit seemingly well intentioned—to purchase the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from a private Japanese owner. Or they could trace these tensions back to an even earlier September 2010 episode, when Tokyo chose to make an international incident of a collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel.

The point here is not to play ‘panda hugger’ by apportioning blame to Tokyo for mounting tensions in Sino-Japanese relations. Rather, it’s to emphasise that strategy is interactive and that there are always two sides to every story.

Third, and most important from Canberra’s perspective, isn’t how this story began but how it’ll ultimately end. Ben’s answer is for the US and its allies to deny Chinese designs on the Western Pacific by beefing up their offensive maritime capabilities. Yet if Linda Jakobsen is right and China is deep down a reactive rising power—and not the aspiring ‘hegemon on the horizon’ that Ben sees it to be—then such an approach seems destined, over time, only to elicit a response in kind from Beijing. In other words, Ben’s prescription leads us down the path of an ever deepening and increasingly dangerous security dilemma between China and Japan.

Ben is absolutely right that China increasingly sees its disagreements with Japan in much the same way as it views the Taiwan issue. That’s precisely what makes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands flashpoint so dangerous and what makes Ben’s policy prescription so ill-advised. The nationalist sentiment underpinning Chinese perceptions of Japan and Taiwan are quite unlike those informing Beijing’s views of any other country or issue, including the South China Sea. According to one recent poll, for instance, a staggering 87% of the Chinese public now hold a negative view of Japan.

In her classic history of the opening days of World War I, The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman laments how miscalculation and a lack of imagination sent the European powers tumbling into the abyss of war. Ben is to be commended for putting his cards on the table and advocating one response to deepening tensions between Beijing and Tokyo. Yet it’s an approach which raises the risks of miscalculation and runs counter to the careful and creative diplomacy that will ultimately be required to bring China and Japan back from the brink. In the search for alternative solutions, we might do well to take a leaf out of Tuchman’s book.

Brendan Taylor is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user jon smith.