Big wars sometimes start over small stakes. For instance, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, presciently warned that a European war would begin as a result of “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” Soon, a royal assassination spawned World War I, which spread conflict around the globe.
National insults, trade opportunities and territorial claims also resulted in their share of stupid, counterproductive conflicts. The assertive young American republic threatened Great Britain with war over the Canadian border and launched an invasion to vindicate its dubious territorial claims against Mexico. A few decades later, the slightly more mature United States fought a lengthy counterinsurgency campaign against independence-minded Filipinos to preserve its territorial booty from the Spanish-American War.
Alliances sometimes accelerate the race to war. Assured of the support of Russia and Germany, respectively, Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were recklessly intransigent in summer 1914. Greater flexibility might not have prevented the conflict, but alliance-backed inflexibility ensured war.
History illustrates the dangers posed by the Asia-Pacific’s many territorial squabbles. None of the contested claims is worth a fight, let alone a great-power conflict. Yet they could become a spark like that in Sarajevo a century ago. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis increased the danger on his recent trip to Japan when he “reassured” the Abe government that Washington, DC was firmly in its corner.
The Senkaku Islands—called the Diaoyus by China—are uninhabited rocks of limited intrinsic value. However, they confer ocean and seabed control and corresponding fishing, navigation and hydrocarbon benefits. Nationalist sentiments loom equally large. The islands are controlled by Tokyo but also claimed by the People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s case is serious—better, in my view, than its less credible South China Sea claims—but Japan insists that there is no issue to discuss.
That leaves the PRC with little choice but to adopt more confrontational tactics to assert its “rights.” Tokyo took direct control of the Senkaku Islands in 2012 to forestall their use by nationalists for protests, which heightened tensions. The following year, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the islands, though so far the ADIZ has more symbolic than real. The PRC also has engaged in fishing and oil exploration in nearby waters, sending in coast guard ships to defend Chinese operations.
Japan felt secure in its intransigence after winning the Obama administration’s commitment that the “mutual” defense treaty between the two nations covered territory administered by the central government, even if claimed by other states. Secretary Mattis was equally explicit. He affirmed not only Washington’s support for Japan’s defense, but also stated, “I made clear that our longstanding policy on the Senkaku Islands stands. The United States will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands, and as such Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies.” In other words, America will defend Tokyo’s contested claim.
The PRC responded sharply. The United States should “avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said . Indeed, he explained , the U.S.-Japan security treaty is “a product of the Cold War, which should not impair China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.”
Adding to the combustible atmosphere is the apparent belief—of at least some officials on both sides—that war is inevitable. For instance, less than a year ago Trump strategist Steve Bannon expressed “no doubt” that “we’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years.” He complained that the Chinese are “taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those.” While the Senkaku Islands are not part of the South China Sea, the same principles apply.
War sounded almost close at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing . He insisted: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” Using force to do so would be an act of war against any country, including America.
Chinese responded accordingly. The People’s Liberation Army website quoted one senior officer as stating: “A ‘war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.” He called for increased military deployments in the region.
The political leadership is less transparent about its views—the residents of Zhongnanhai don’t typically appear on radio shows. However, Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group opined that “the Chinese government is quite concerned about the potential for direct confrontation with the Trump administration.” Although President Xi Jinping appears reasonably pragmatic while ruthlessly repressive, he isn’t likely to abandon what he sees as “core” Chinese interests. Moreover, nationalists and unreconstructed leftists, though differing on economic policy, share a distrust of the United States.
A mutual belief in inevitable conflict could become reality. Before World War I, a number of high-ranking European officials believed that war was coming. For them, it made sense to accept, even embrace, the onset of the conflict in August 1914 and strike while victory still remained possible.