A Great War in the East China Sea: Why China and Japan Could Fight

How the unthinkable could happen in Asia—and the ramifications for America.

Few people believe that either China or Japan would deliberately start a war in the East China Sea. Most analysts assume that an armed clash could only occur through accident, misunderstanding or unauthorized acts by junior officers acting without, or even against, orders. These are not remote possibilities, of course. They already make the risk of war dangerously high. But we underestimate how high that risk really is if we think this is the only way a war could begin. I think there is a real possibility that fighting might be started deliberately by one side or the other, and unless we understand the circumstances that might prompt that step from either side, we will not be able to take steps to avoid them.

First, we must be clear that neither side is at all likely to deliberately start a fight over possession of the disputed islands themselves, or even of the resources that might lie around them. They are not worth a military conflict to anyone. But the dispute has never been about territory. The islands are simply tokens in a contest to define the roles and status of Asia’s great powers over coming decades. These are issues over which states might well choose to start a war.

Let’s start with China. As I have argued elsewhere, China’s primary aim is to strengthen its leadership in Asia and undermine America’s. The best way to do that without confronting America too directly is to weaken the alliances and partnerships that underpin U.S. regional leadership. It therefore wants to persuade U.S. allies that Washington is no longer willing to stand up for them against the growing power of China. (Whether Beijing would be right to assume that without U.S. support they would more willingly accept Chinese leadership is a separate question, of course. As far as Japan is concerned, I think they are probably wrong, but that is a separate issue.)

Beijing has clearly decided that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute provides a perfect opportunity to demonstrate America’s wavering commitment to its allies. So far, they seem to have been right. China’s threatening military actions around the islands have stoked Japanese anxieties about whether, in the event of a clash, America would provide military support. Washington has done exactly as Beijing hoped, by sending distinctly mixed messages about what it might do in a crisis. This has indeed undermined Japanese confidence in the alliance.

The risk here is that China might decide to take this approach one step further. Clearly, all of Japan’s fears would be realized, and the U.S.-Japanese alliance would be dealt a much more serious blow if a clash actually occurred around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and America did indeed fail to come to Japan’s aid. There must be a big temptation for Beijing to put America’s position in Asia to this much sterner test, in the hope that it will crack.

Of course, that would only be a temptation if Beijing was very confident that Washington would indeed let Japan down. I think Beijing probably is quite confident of that, because they assume that Washington recognizes that America could not win an East China Sea conflict, and would be deterred from starting one for fear that it would escalate toward a nuclear exchange (I have explained this reasoning here).

But Beijing must know that a really determined U.S. president might have the nerve to stare them down anyway. That gives Beijing a motive to move sooner rather than later in testing U.S. resolve. They have a motive to bring on a clash with Japan—perhaps by deliberately staging an “accidental” exchange of fire—while there is someone in the White House who they think will not have that kind of nerve. Someone like President Obama.

Obama’s reluctance to engage in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Iraq and the evident ambivalence about the much-hyped “pivot” to Asia may encourage Beijing to think that Obama’s presidency offers them a window of opportunity that will close after the next election if the new president is bolder—or more reckless. If so, China’s leaders might be tempted to stage an incident against Japan while Obama is still in the White House.

The obvious way to reduce this risk is for the president to state clearly that America would support Japan militarily in any clash over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which is exactly what Obama said in Tokyo in late April. If a statement like this carries real credibility, it should deter Beijing from starting a clash. But if not—if it looks like a bluff or a rash statement made without careful consideration of what a war with China might mean—then China might expect that Obama would back down if put to the test. That could then actually encourage China to stage a clash.