Even as tensions between Beijing and Tokyo grow by the day, there are good reasons to believe outright conflict can be avoided.
The sequel seldom improves on the original. Yet Shinzo Abe, Japan’s newly re-elected prime minister, has already displayed more conviction during his second spell at the Kantei than in the entire year of his first, unhappy premiership.
Political energy is a plus only when it’s wisely deployed however, and some fear that Abe is picking a fight he can’t win when it comes to his hardline stance on China.
Rather than attempting to soothe the tensions that built between Beijing and Tokyo in 2012, Abe has struck a combative tone, especially concerning their dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands – a keystone for nationalists in both countries. Each time fighter aircraft are scrambled or ships are sent to survey the likely flashpoint, we hear more warnings about the approach of a war that China and Japan now seem almost eager to wage. The Economist, for example,recently observed that, “China and Japan are sliding towards war,” while Hugh White of the Australian National University warned his readers: “Don't be too surprised if the U.S. and Japan go to war with China [in 2013].” News this week of another reckless act of escalation – Chinese naval vessels twice training their radars on their Japanese counterparts – will only have ratcheted up their concerns.
These doomful predictions came as Abe set out his vision of a more hard-nosed Japan that will no longer be pushed around when it comes to sovereignty issues. In his December op-ed on Project Syndicate Abe accused Beijing of performing “daily exercises in coercion” and advocated a “democratic security diamond” comprising Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. (rehashing a concept from the 2007 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). He then proposed defense spending increases – Japan’s first in a decade – and strengthened security relations with the Philippines and Vietnam, which both share Tokyo’s misgivings about China’s intentions. An alliance-affirming trip to the U.S.is expected soon, and there is talk of Japan stationing F-15s on Shimojijima, close to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
However, Abe would argue that he is acting to strengthen Japan in order to balance a rising China and prevent a conflict, rather than creating the conditions for one. And he undoubtedly has a more sanguine view of the future of Sino-Japanese relations than those who see war as an ever more likely outcome. Of course, there is a chance that Chinese and Japanese ships or aircraft will clash as the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands rumbles on; and, if they do, there is a chance that a skirmish could snowball unpredictably into a wider conflict.
But if Shinzo Abe is gambling with the region’s security, he is at least playing the odds. He is calculating that Japan can pursue a more muscular foreign policy without triggering a catastrophic backlash from China, based on the numerous constraints that shape Chinese actions, as well as the interlocking structure of the globalized environment which the two countries co-inhabit. Specifically, there are seven reasons to think that war is a very unlikely prospect, even with a more hawkish prime minister running Japan:
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