A dangerous miscalculation?

China flexes it’s muscles:

The long-standing row between China and Japan concerning the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has just taken a more serious turn. For a good explanation of the background to the row this article on the BBC website covers all the bases. No doubt a solution to the dispute can be found but most likely a third party will have to suggest it. Who that third party will be and whether both China and Japan would accept the solution is another matter.

The latest rise in temperature has been a year in the making. In 2012 the Japanese Government purchased the islands from a private Japanese individual. China protested and in October of this year they increased their naval presence in the islands. This resulted in a confrontation which  didn’t escalate into a shooting match but I wouldn’t like to bet on that being a continuing situation. China has definitely upped the ante by introducing their own Air Defence Zone and demands that Japan scrap their own zone before China scraps theirs  are simply ridiculous, something which China must realise so it begs the question ‘why’? If the Chinese were in any doubt about their neighbours’ reaction to this, the fact that Japan, South Korea and America have each sent military aircraft into the newly declared air defence identification zone without complying with Chinese procedures should tell them that nobody is about to comply with their demands anytime soon.

Why now?

Possibly because America has just rolled-over with regard to Iran and they failed to intervene in Syria despite making a lot of noise about their intention to do so. President Obama on the face of it doesn’t want to get involved in any further military adventures but he’s seen his foreign policy in the Middle East collapse in ruins. He’s seen the Russian’s stock rise and America’s fall which ought to worry him and despite talk of bringing the troops home he’s negotiated a deal with Afghanistan’s President Kairzai to keep American troops in that country after they have ostensibly been pulled out. The latter should have given the Chinese pause for thought.  Couple that with previous American pronouncements on how they saw the Pacific region as the main area of possible conflict in the 21st century and that they would be re-aligning their military resources to counter this perceived threat and alarm bells should have been ringing in Beijing. As I have opined in previous articles China probably estimated that they had a good ten years before America finished redeploying their forces. The American reaction to North Korea’s sabre-rattling really should have told them their assessment was wrong. Or did they realise that America could and indeed would redeploy far faster than they could ever hope to and so accelerated their own expansionary program? One thing that will not have escaped their attention was President Obama’s statement on the scaling back of American long-standing policy of being able to fight a war on two fronts at any given time. My assessment of this is that it means if there is a military conflict of any sort in the Pacific region then China will have America’s full attention. Possibly the Chinese military came to a different conclusion but if so they are probably the only ones.

Japan: don’t mention the war:

And that’s the problem, they don’t. Successive Japanese governments since the Second World War have followed a policy of ‘never apologise and never explain’. This has infuriated both South Korea and China over the years. It hasn’t sat too well in Europe and the Anzac countries either but whilst Japan was an economic superpower money talked. That and the generation of servicemen and women, not to forget civilians who were held by the Japanese are passing on. Maybe that was the Japanese reasoning behind making no apologies. Time and money heals all. Well, perhaps or most likely perhaps not.

Maybe the Chinese have concluded that actually with Japan’s economy having stagnated for the last twenty years or so and people outside of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) region showing no signs of forgetting Japanese treatment of POWs and civilian captives, witness the outcry whenever a Japanese government minister visits the Yasukuni shrine to their war dead, time and sympathy is on their side. That may be so but it’s ignoring the fact that all of the other ASEAN countries are deeply suspicious of Chinese intentions in the region and see American involvement as a counter-balance to any possible Chinese expansionist plans.

Now what?

On a positive note both China and Japan are still talking to each other. That said, the Japanese approach to the dispute over the islands is to try and deny that it actually exists. China’s approach is to make it clear that the Japanese attitude is a real hindrance to bilateral talks, which even now are being held. One thing is for sure, the elephant in the room, namely America, is not going to be seen to abandon yet another long-standing ally, the list is getting embarrassingly long. They perceive the South China Sea as an area of major strategic importance and National Security concerns to them and have repeatedly publicly said so. Nobody is about to be seen to back down and the response of America, Japan and South Korea has in a real sense picked-up the thrown down Chinese gauntlet.

China must know that they cannot win a military confrontation with America. One American naval battle group has more firepower than the entire Chinese navy can muster and this is the sort of war that America knows how to fight. Be the ‘firstest with the mostest’ and whatever your personal opinion on American fighting forces their logistics are second to none and in any given category they very definitely have ‘the mostest’. Except manpower but then human flesh and high explosives are uneasy bedfellows. It would be messy, it would be appalling but in the end it would be ‘no contest’. Forget the Korean War and the inconclusive armistice, America cannot be seen to lose this one. Mind you the same could be said of China.

The end game?

I find it difficult to believe that China has misjudged American resolve but it increasingly appears that way. Japan has their grievances against China as well and do not have a reputation as ‘the Swiss of the East’. Sheltering under an American nuclear umbrella they may well see some form of limited military conflict as acceptable, as indeed may China if they calculate that America would not intervene if the conflict was localised. This may well prove to be a fatal miscalculation. Perhaps the Chinese military are not happy about recent structural reforms within China or perhaps a local ‘punch-up’ is seen as a way of diffusing internal dissent. There are countless historical examples of embattled governments invoking an external threat to suppress an internal one. The Chines military may think they can win this one but it’s up to the Chinese Government to tell them they can’t. If they don’t then America will make the point for them.

I leave you with this final thought. China has already sent fighter aircraft to patrol the disputed zone. Japan will respond and it only takes two, twenty-something testosterone-fueled fighter pilots to turn this into a shooting match. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

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