6. China’s policy of avoiding military confrontation. China has always said that it favors peaceful solutions to disputes, and its actions have tended to bear this out. In particular, it continues to usually dispatch unarmed or only lightly armed law enforcement ships to maritime flashpoints, rather than naval ships.There have been calls for a more aggressive policy in the nationalist media, and from some military figures; but Beijing has not shown much sign of heeding them. The PLA Navy made a more active intervention in the dispute this week when one of its frigates trained its radar on a Japanese naval vessel. This was a dangerous and provocative act of escalation, but once again the Chinese action was kept within bounds that made violence unlikely (albeit, needlessly, more likely than before).
7. China’s socialization. China has spent too long telling the world that it poses no threat to peace to turn around and fulfill all the China-bashers’ prophecies. Already, China’s reputation in Southeast Asia has taken a hit over its handling of territorial disputes there. If it were cast as the guilty party in a conflict with Japan –which already has the sympathy of many East Asian countries where tensions China are concerned – China would see regional opinion harden against it further still. This is not what Beijing wants: It seeks to influence regional affairs diplomatically from within, and to realize “win-win” opportunities with its international partners.
In light of these constraints, Abe should be able to push back against China – so long as he doesn’t go too far. He was of course dealt a rotten hand by his predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, whose bungled nationalization of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands triggered last year’s plunge in relations. Noda’s misjudgments raised the political temperature to the point where neither side feels able to make concessions, at least for now, in an attempt to repair relations.
However, Abe can make the toxic Noda legacy work in his favor. Domestically, he can play the role of the man elected to untangle the wreckage, empowered by his democratic mandate to seek a new normal in Sino-Japanese relations. Chinese assertiveness would be met with a newfound Japanese assertiveness, restoring balance to the relationship. It is also timely for Japan to push back now, while its military is still a match for China’s. Five or ten years down the line this may no longer be the case, even if Abe finally grows the stagnant defense budget.
Meanwhile, Abe is also pursuing diplomatic avenues. It was Abe who mended Japan’s ties with China after the Koizumi years, and he is now trying to reprise his role as peacemaker, having dispatched his coalition partner, Natsuo Yamaguchi, to Beijing reportedly to convey his desire for a new dialogue. It is hardly surprising, given his daunting domestic laundry list, that Xi Jinping should have responded encouragingly to the Japanese olive branch.
In the end, Abe and Xi are balancing the same equation: They will not give ground on sovereignty issues, but they have no interest in a war – in fact, they must dread it. Even if a small skirmish between Chinese and Japanese ships or aircraft occurs, the leaders will not order additional forces to join the battle unless they are boxed in by a very specific set of circumstances that makes escalation the only face-saving option. The escalatory spiral into all-out war that some envisage once the first shot is fired is certainly not the likeliest outcome, as recurrent skirmishes elsewhere – such as in Kashmir, or along the Thai-Cambodian border – have demonstrated.