Asia's Worst Nightmare: A China-Japan War

Is it possible?

Let's not understate the likelihood of war in East Asia or kid ourselves that the United States can remain aloof should China and Japan enter the lists. It's tough for Westerners to fathom the nature of the competition or the passions it stokes. From an intellectual standpoint, we have little trouble comprehending the disputes pitting the Asian rivals against each other. For example, both Tokyo and Beijing claim sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, a tiny archipelago near Taiwan and the Ryukyus. China covets control of offshore air and sea traffic, hence its new East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and its efforts to rewrite the rules governing use of the nautical commons. Undersea energy resources beget frictions about where to draw the lines bounding exclusive economic zones (EEZs). And so on.

The facts of these cases are outwardly simple. They're about how to divvy up territory and stuff. Outsiders get that. But therein lies a danger -- the danger of assuming that tangible, quantifiable things are all there is to an impasse. That's doubly true when the territory and stuff under dispute command trivial worth. By strategist Carl von Clausewitz's cost-benefit logic, the Senkakus or Scarborough Shoal merit minimal time or resources from any of the protagonists. Hence commentators wonder why compromise appears so hard when the stakes are so small by objective standards. They find it baffling that great powers would risk war over "uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea.” Some Asia-watchers strike a world-weary tone at the willingness of societies to struggle over "intrinsically worthless" geographic features.

Why, they ask, can't the contenders just split the difference -- restoring regional harmony in the bargain, and sparing others needless entanglements and hardships? To cling fast to objects of little obvious value seems obtuse, if not irrational and self-defeating.

Is it? Sci-fi master Robert A. Heinlein might jest that Westerners understand these matters but don't grok them. Great questions encompass not just the concrete interests at issue but also larger principles. Heinlein coined the term grok for his classic Stranger in a Strange Land. It means "to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed." It means feeling something in your gut, not just knowing it intellectually. He appeared to despair at one person's capacity to truly know another. To grok "means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science." But such "deeper understanding," vouchsafes Heinlein, eludes most people as color eludes "a blind man." The result: an unwitting empathy deficit toward allies and prospective adversaries alike.

Yet grok grim strategic realities we must. This competition is about more than islets or ADIZs. Nothing less than the nature of the Asian order is at stake. Making the world safe for democracy, or oligarchy, or whatever regime holds power at home constitutes a basic impulse for foreign policy. From the age of Thucydides forward, nations have spent lavishly to preserve or install regional orders hospitable to their own national interests and aspirations. By surrounding itself with like-minded regimes, a nation hopes to lock in a favorable, tranquil status quo. As it was in antiquity, so it remains today. Imperial Japan upended the Asian hierarchy in 1894-1895, smashing the Qing Dynasty's navy and seizing such choice sites as Port Arthur on the Liaotung Peninsula. It began making Asia safe for a Japanese empire.

Military triumphs often underperform their political goals. But as my colleague and friend Sally Paine notes, the first Sino-Japanese War was a limited war whose effects were anything but limited. The Qing regime remained in place following its defeat, but the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which terminated the conflict, signified Japan's eclipse of China as Asia's central power. The treaty's terms -- in particular its transfer of Taiwan to Japan -- modified the regional order in ways we still live with today. Indeed, Professor Paine points out that Chinese foreign policy since 1895 has striven to repeal Shimonoseki, while Japanese foreign policy has sought to reaffirm it.

In short, Imperial Japan ousted China from its place atop the Asian hierarchy through limited war. China would like to repay the favor, regaining its rightful -- to Chinese minds -- station through similarly limited coercive diplomacy. Classical strategist Sun Tzu instructs commanders to look for opportunities to achieve disproportionate effects through minute amounts of force. Beijing evidently discerns such an opportunity in the East China Sea. It hopes to make Asia safe for its brand of communism-cum-authoritarian capitalism.

But the geometry of any future conflict will be more complex than the one-on-one Sino-Japanese War. Curiously, the United States is a not-so-silent partner in guaranteeing the remnants of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, as modified by the outcomes of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and the Pacific War (1941-1945). American officials insist that Washington has no particular stake in whose flag flies over the islands and atolls dotting Asian waters. That's true. But it has a strong interest in preserving the system it has presided over since 1945.

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