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Get Ready, America: Are China and Japan Destined for War?

While your Twitter and Facebook feed these days might be filled with stories about Iran, North Korea and ISIS, as well as the South China Sea, 2016 could be the year of a deadly clash between China and Japan—and the stakes could not be any higher for the United States.

A recent article in Foreign Policy sets the stage for such a clash—and shows how America could get sucked in. After a relatively peaceful year—if such a thing exists in the East China Sea—Beijing and Tokyo are once again warning each other to back off claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. With the rhetoric heading up, Foreign Policy reporters Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson headed over to the Rand Corporation for a war game that pitted China vs. Japan and eventually the United States. In the simulation, Tokyo’s treaty ally pledged to defend the island nation, including the disputed islands, from attack.

The scenario for the wargame was frighteningly realistic to say the least:

“A group of renegade Japanese ultranationalists wade ashore on a barren islet they call Uotsuri-shima. It’s the largest of a cluster of uninhabited and uninhabitable rocks known as the Senkakus, or the Diaoyu in Chinese, the unlikely locus of a long-running territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. The activists plant the Japanese flag, declaring that the islands are inalienable Japanese territory; their YouTube video threatens the Chinese navy with destruction if it dares to seize the islands.

“Caught off guard, Tokyo is slow to respond, but eventually disowns the ultranationalists and their stunt. By then, though, China has condemned the move as a hostile act and has dispatched armed coast guard and naval vessels to the relatively shallow waters around the Senkakus. Chinese marines arrest the 14 activists and vow to bring them back to China for prosecution.

“The next day, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is dispatched to the area, accompanied by a squadron of Japanese F-15 fighters. China maintains its naval ships around the islands and insists that it will not withdraw from the area. As the two militaries appear headed on a collision course, Tokyo informs Washington that it is finally invoking the mutual defense treaty the two nations have had since 1951. Now the White House has a decision to make.”

While it is well worth your time to read all the twists and turns, here is the ultimate of spoilers:

“The United States sends humanitarian aid and disaster-response teams to Japan to bolster its homeland defense and dispatches the carrier at a safe distance in flight range of the Senkakus. It also launches targeted, precision strikes on a handful of Chinese missile sites on the coast, clearly explaining to Chinese leadership the limited nature of the measures.”

And into hell we descend:

“U.S. missiles rain down on the Chinese homeland; Japanese commercial freighters explode on the high seas; China’s shiny new navy is quickly shrinking under relentless undersea attacks. In reprisal, Chinese forces obliterate Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and take a potshot with a carrier-killer missile at the George Washington, damaging it and forcing it out of the area. The casualty toll is appalling on all sides, with thousands dead.”

Feel a sense of déjà vu, National Interest readers? It seems good minds think alike, as I explored a very similar scenario back in June of 2014:

“Picture it: It's March 1, 2015. Tokyo and Beijing are headed towards what was once the unthinkable.

“Over the last several months China has instituted daily non-naval maritime patrols around the hotly disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Beijing is even sending fully-fledged naval assets within the islands' 12 mile exclusion zone while its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, exercised only 50 miles away from the islands back in February — truly the end of Beijing's small-stick diplomatic strategy.

“But on 1 March the plot thickens. Two Chinese SU-27 fighters come within 25 feet of a Japanese P-3 Orion surveillance plane just 10 miles west of the Senkakus (sound familiar?). The Japanese pilot gets nervous. A slight tweak at the controls and the Japanese plane collides with one of the Chinese fighters. Both aircraft crash into the ocean, with no survivors.

"Naturally each side blames the other. Beijing accuses the Japanese pilots of violating Chinese sovereign airspace and violating its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. Japan claims the Chinese pilots acted recklessly, flying so close. The media in both countries fan the flames of nationalism. Just 72 hours later, a group of twenty Chinese nationals land on one of the disputed islands under the cover of darkness. Rumors swirl that Beijing knew of the voyage but did nothing to stop it. A Japanese naval task force carrying a small detachment of soldiers is dispatched. Their goal: remove the only residents of the disputed five-island chain.