The gloomiest man in Canberra, Australia’s noted strategic expert Hugh White, has added a new edge to his warning about possible war between the United States and China. He now suggests that precisely such a conflict could arise from the sustained tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and perhaps as soon as 2013.
White makes an important point. He is correct to highlight the perverse contradictions of the world’s three richest countries being willing to risk peace and prosperity over something so seemingly trivial as contested maritime boundaries. He is right also to emphasize that this is not really about proximate causes — the dispute over who owns certain rocks and islets and the potentially resource-rich seas around.
Instead, the tensions and even confrontation of the past few months reflect deeper anxieties in China-Japan and ultimately China-America relations. These Professor White relates to the structural causes of the ruinous Peloponnesian Wars of the 5th century BC: power, pride and fear.
And it's true that tensions have been rising: a catalogue of naval and even aerial incidents, between two North Asian powers with deep mistrust and a poor record of operational communications and crisis management. Leadership changes in both nations have played into what has been widely perceived as a spirit of mutual intransigence.
And yet, projecting a near-term future involving a potentially full-scale war between China and Japan, with the United States drawn in, remains a big call indeed.
To be sure, the Obama Administration must be feeling frustration that its strategy of a much-touted "pivot" back to Asia has been thrown somewhat awry by Japan’s unexpected acquisition of three of the Senkaku islands in September.
The pivot or rebalancing was about the United States reemphasizing its very large strategic and diplomatic investment in the Asian security order in the face of China’s 2010-11 phase of assertiveness. In so doing, Washington had succeeded in reassuring its Asian allies and partners — but in Tokyo’s case, perhaps a little too much.
Now the United States needs to focus as much on helping to manage, or at least not aggravate, Sino-Japanese tensions as on underscoring its support for the defense of Japan and other allies’ interests.
But the high-stakes worrying over East China Sea tensions is premised on the view that, as Professor White puts it, "the crisis will not stop by itself." He argues that one side or other, or both, "will have to take positive steps to break the cycle of action and reaction."
Of course it would be folly to count on a prolonged crisis simply fizzling out. But both China and Japan are more than capable of strategic patience. Neither wants to force the issue in the immediate term. Each government has an interest in trying to exert greater control over the various institutional players — not just navies but also civilian maritime agencies — whose operational decisions could make the difference between calm and crisis.
The good news is that Japan’s newly-elected conservative Abe government has no pressing reason to pursue further provocation. And whatever its forceful rhetoric, the new Chinese leadership has little near-term incentive to prod Japan further; an armed confrontation with Japan that ended badly for China would be worse for the credibility of China’s leaders than no clash at all.
Doubtless there will be a need for cool heads and assiduous incident-management in the months ahead. But considerably more likely than war in 2013 is the possibility that, for all their tough talk, all sides are already working quietly to engineer a decent interval after which they can resume some serious diplomacy.
Rory Medcalf directs the international security program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and is a Diplomat contributor. He is a former diplomat, intelligence analyst and journalist whose work covers a wide spectrum of strategic and geopolitical issues in Indo-Pacific Asia. Follow him on twitter @Rory_Medcalf.