China & Japan – The Perils of Proximity

Vishnu-Gupt, the celebrated “Kautilya”, wrote Artha-Shastra, the definitive treatise on Politics, Economics & GeoStrategy around 300 BCE. An Acharya or professor at the world-renowned Taksha-Shila University, Vishnu-Gupt was instrumental in using Alexander’s invasion of Gandhaar (today’s Af-Pak) to change India’s system of multiple democratic republics into a single Federal Empire known as the Maurya Empire.

One of Vishnu-Gupt tenets was that neighbors, especially strong neighbors, are almost always rivals. As a corollary, Vishnu-Gupt taught that it is incumbent on an emperor to build strong defenses as well as create offensive capability to thwart the future aims of a strong neighbor.

We see this playing out today between China and Japan. As Chapter 5 of the book, The Perils of Proximity, explains:

  • scholars who study interstate conflict generally find that territorial disputes are an especially important causal factor.
  • pairs
    of countries “whose relations are dominated by territorial disputes or
    who simply have recurring territorial disputes…are more apt to go to
    war than those that are not contending over territory”..That is true in
    particular of countries that are neighbors.

The dispute in the news centers around ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that are claimed by both Japan and China. Both China and Japan seem on the verge of a serious miscalculation, one that can lead to a military conflict. Whenever we need to understand the China-Japan rivalry, we go to the scholarly book The Perils of Proximity by Richard C. Bush, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution. What we discuss below is based on this excellent work.

The US Involvement

This is a very serious foreign policy problem for the United States, far more serious than the violent protests against US in the Muslim World. Why? Because the United States can find itself involved in a military conflict with China.

According to The Perils of Proximity, Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty states the following:

  • “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”

And the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are under Japan’s administrative control. In February 2004, a senior Bush administration official publicly and explicitly reaffirmed that the treaty applied to “territories under administration”. This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta affirmed in both Japan and China that the islands fall under the scope of the is U.S.-Japan treaty.

Why are the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands so Important?

Certainly not because of their size. The Economist cover picture tells that story.


So what gives?

First the geostrategics. Look at their location in the wikipedia map above. Author Bush explains:

  • For
    Japan’s part, maintaining a control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and
    protecting its interests in the East China Sea are important
  • Takai
    Mitsuo, a former instructor with the Ground Self-Defense Force, warns
    that is China were to occupy the islands, “it would secure superiority
    in intelligence and control of the air and sea space in the southern
    sector of the East China Sea”
  • Nakanishi
    Terumasa points to the Island’s strategic link to Taiwan: “If
    unification with China occurred, the areas surrounding the Senkaku
    Islands would immediately become China’s seas completely” and Japanese
    air force and navy would be forced out of the area.

What about Chinese perspectives?

  • A
    professor of strategic studies linked the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue to
    Taiwan; the crux of the Taiwan issue is Diaoyu Island, and the Diaoyu
    issue is a Japan issue. Therefore, grasping the “weakest link”, Diaoyu
    Island, will solve half of the Taiwan issue, and solving the Taiwan
    issue will settle all sea issues of China”.

you see that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are an extremely strategic
issue, an issue on which neither China nor Japan are likely to concede
. This may make a conflict likely.

  • In
    2009, a Japanese think tank warned that further expansion of PLA
    maritime activities in the East China Sea could escalate tensions with
    Japan into military clashes.

is the situation we see today with Chinese maritime surveillance ships
entering the territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diacoyu islands which
are patrolled by armed Japanese coast guard boats.

The second imperative comes from oil and gas resources in the East China Sea. Who owns the resources also depends on whether the Senkaky/Diaoyu islands are actually “islands” in the UNCLOS sense of being able to support human habitation. This is important because the “island” status would confirm ownership of a 200mm EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) around the islands. This and other issues that arise from ownership of these tiny islands are discussed in detail in Chapter 6 of The Perils of Proximity.

The above shows why the Senkaku-Diaoyu issue might be “irresolvable“, to borrow a phrase from a Stratfor video*.

China-Japan Proximity Causes Friction 

Author Bush explains:

  • The presence of the navy, air force, and law enforcement units of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is expanding towards the east, thereby moving into Japan’s area of operations – and also that of the United States.
  • Both countries’ military forces seek, in similar ways, to deny their adversaries access to or control of critical strategic areas…Thus China’s long-term goal is to make it difficult or impossible for the U.S. and Japanese military forces to operate in the zone west of the island chain formed by Japan…Consequently, the two navies and air forces now operate closer to each other than ever.

The Japanese and Chinese Navies

Despite Japan’s post-WWII image as a passive, non-militaristic nation, Author Bush quotes Naval specialist  Bernard Cole calling Japan’s navy “the most powerful naval Asian naval force on any given day.” Mr. Bush writes:

  • Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has a significant fleet of vessels of various capabilities, divided into four destroyer groups, four submarine groups, one minesweeper group, and nine air squadrons. 

In sheer numbers. China’s Navy outnumbers Japan’s.

  • The assets of PLAN (China’s navy) are formed into three fleets. The North Sea Fleet, which operates closest to the Japanese home islands,..the East Sea Fleet which operates in the East China Sea and which would play a prominent role in a conflict over Taiwan or the Diaoyu islands….the South Fleet [which] is less relevant to Japan.

Despite the numerical advantage and the strides made by the PLAN in recent years, Author Bush writes:

  • The results of China’s naval modernization effort should not be exaggerated. Ship for ship and sub for sub, the PLAN is still not a match for the [Japanese] MSDF, to say nothing of the U.S. Navy.

China in a crisis?

Authoritarian states tend to create external crisis to deflect the attention of their people from domestic troubles. That is what China seems to be doing. Anti-Japanese protests have swept several major cities and Japanese companies have shuttered their operations in China. The Chinese defense minister has warned that “further actions” were possible, according to the New York Times.

It is hard to see how China can gracefully climb down from this level of rhetoric, especially when China is in the midst of a serious economic crisis. All this is occurring during the generation shift of Chinese leadership. Yet, the Chinese leadership might have realized that the protests can just as easily turn inward against them. This is the point made by a recent Stratfor video*:

  • …the anti-Japanese protests that swept over China’s cities are making Beijing uneasy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the protestors are unemployed young men and in at least a few cases, calls to bring down Japan interspersed with expressions of anger against the Chinese Government and even calls to bring back Bo XiLai.

As other Governments have discovered, whipping up nationalistic protests against foreign enemies can often backfire especially if the Government doesn’t deliver fast success. This is especially true of Governments that launch such adventures from a position of weakness. 

Not Before Its Time!

We expect China to
step away from the brink in this case. Because the famous motto of Gallo Wines applies to military strategy as well. A conflict at this stage
does not seem to fit Chinese style. Mr. Bush explains:

  • Thomas Christensen finds that China has used force most frequently when it perceived an opening window of vulnerability or a closing of opportunity. When Beijing assesses a tactical military situation, it may choose to fight even if the adversary has the advantage if it is clear the advantage is only going to grow.

Neither of these conditions apply today.

  • Today, China is not capable of defeating Japan in a fast, lighting strike and China has not shown the ability to mount a sustained war. Further in any sustained war, America might be forced to intervene because of its treaty obligations with Japan.
  • On the other hand, China’s military capability is growing relative to Japan’s and the introduction of an aircraft carrier group would give Chinese navy a substantial advantage. So China can afford to wait for a better opportunity when its strength might deter Japan.

But that assumes Japan does not grow its own offensive military capability vs. China. If it begins doing so, then China may be forced to act. In any case, the China-Japan relationship and China’s behavior with smaller Asian allies will make for an interesting few years.

* The Stratfor video we referenced above is excellent. We include it below:

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