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:
1. Beijing’s nightmare scenario. China might well win a war against Japan, but defeat would also be a very real possibility. As China closes the book on its “century of humiliation” and looks ahead to prouder times, the prospect of a new, avoidable humiliation at the hands of its most bitter enemy is enough to persuade Beijing to do everything it can to prevent that outcome (the surest way being not to have a war at all). Certainly, China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, does not want to go down in history as the man who led China into a disastrous conflict with the Japanese. In that scenario, Xi would be doomed politically, and, as China’s angry nationalism turned inward, the Communist Party probably wouldn’t survive either.
2. Economic interdependence. Win or lose, a Sino-Japanese war would be disastrous for both participants. The flagging economy that Abe is trying to breathe life into with a $117 billion stimulus package would take a battering as the lucrative China market was closed off to Japanese business. China would suffer, too, as Japanese companies pulled out of a now-hostile market, depriving up to 5 million Chinese workers of their jobs, even as Xi Jinping looks to double per capita income by 2020. Panic in the globalized economy would further depress both economies, and potentially destroy the programs of both countries’ new leaders.
3. Question marks over the PLA’s operational effectiveness.The People’s Liberation Army is rapidly modernizing, but there are concerns about how effective it would prove if pressed into combat today – not least within China’s own military hierarchy. New Central Military Commission Vice-Chairman Xu Qiliang recently told the PLA Daily that too many PLA exercises are merely for show, and that new elite units had to be formed if China wanted to protect its interests. CMC Chairman Xi Jinping has also called on the PLA to improve its readiness for “real combat.” Other weaknesses within the PLA, such as endemic corruption, would similarly undermine the leadership’s confidence in committing it to a risky war with a peer adversary.
4. Unsettled politics. China’s civil and military leaderships remain in a state of flux, with the handover initiated in November not yet complete. As the new leaders find their feet and jockey for position amongst themselves, they will want to avoid big foreign-policy distractions – war with Japan and possibly the U.S. being the biggest of them all.
5. The unknown quantity of U.S. intervention. China has its hawks, such as Dai Xu, who think that the U.S. would never intervene in an Asian conflict on behalf of Japan or any other regional ally. But this view is far too casual. U.S. involvement is a real enough possibility to give China pause, should the chances of conflict increase.
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.