In your recent article for The Diplomat you express confidence that Japan and China will not go to war over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Do you envision them reaching some type of resolution or just persisting tensions short of war?
Well, I have no confidence that they will resolve their dispute. I just don’t think there’s going to be a war over it.
Don’t forget that we’re dealing here with a media phenomenon, as much as a geopolitical one. The tussle between China and Japan has enjoyed exhaustive coverage, while also generating spools of academic commentary. But the authors have generally fixated on the worst-case scenarios. While they’ve been right to highlight the dangers, it seems strange to me that hardly anyone has taken the trouble to discuss the flipside – that China and Japan both have compelling, if not overwhelming, reasons to avoid a conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
We shouldn’t pretend, though, that things haven’t reached a dangerous phase. The ultimate resolution will depend on how Beijing and Tokyo navigate the next few months, which will be delicate and critical. There are three possible outcomes in terms of arriving at a peaceful versus a violent endpoint: a) no violence; b) contained violence; and c) a major conflict. With every small act of escalation, Scenario B becomes more likely. Once we have B, C becomes possible.
As long as China and Japan remain within the bounds of Scenario A, as they do today, we can still afford to be optimistic. Sending out patrols or activating radars – minor acts of provocation – are a far cry from actually sinking ships or shooting down aircraft. Both Abe and Xi, I think, recognize that war would be disastrous, and have signaled that they are keen to explore diplomatic avenues. They should do so immediately, before any Chinese and Japanese servicemen are killed for no good reason.
What has been the United States’ approach to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute and how would you rate its effectiveness?
The U.S. has essentially stayed out of the dispute. China is hypersensitive about U.S. involvement, as seen when Beijing pounced on an innocuous comment that Hillary Clinton made about the status of the disputed islands a couple of weeks ago. Washington doesn’t need to inflame things by voicing its support for Japan; we can all take that support as read. America’s function here is merely to remain in the background, and to deter China from overreaching. So far there has been no violence, so I’d say that the U.S. approach has been very successful.
Switching gears, almost exactly a year ago you wrote an article in The Diplomat about Burma’s Kachin conflict in which you argued that “Ending Burma’s deep-rooted civil wars is perhaps the ultimate test of Thein Sein’s reform-minded regime.” Given the recent flare up in the Kachin conflict, would you say he failed in achieving this task or are you more optimistic than that?
Thein Sein was failing this test a year ago, and he’s still failing it today. Either he is lying to the world, and has secretly instructed the Burmese military to pursue its offensive against the Kachin rebels, while outwardly preaching peace and reform, or, he has no control over his own armed forces. Either way, the outlook is bleak for the Kachin, and the situation in general greatly undermines Myanmar’s reform process. The Tatmadaw [Burmese military] is using attack helicopters and artillery to shell its own people – civilians, as well as Kachin Independence Army fighters. That’s the bad old Burma, not the twinkly new Myanmar.
But perhaps the more pertinent question is whether any of this even matters. The world appears to have already made up its mind to engage with the Thein Sein government. Even as the Burmese military was battering the Kachin last week, the Paris Club – i.e. the U.S., Japan and Europe – was agreeing to wipe out $6 billion in Burmese debt (Japan has also begun providing new loans). That’s leverage over Thein Sein that the Paris Club has just handed back. Myanmar is too an enticing prize for them, both as a geostrategic location and also as a large, untapped market. Sad to say, but I think the long-suffering Kachin are on their own.
In the past you have also written about the defense relationship between China and Bangladesh. Can you describe some of the recent developments in Bangladesh’s foreign military deals with Russia and China and explain their strategic rationale?
Bangladesh is often overlooked, but the country is emerging as one of Asia’s real success stories. It’s expected to be Asia’s fastest-growing economy between now and 2050.
Strategically speaking, not unlike Myanmar, Bangladesh sits somewhere within both China and India’s spheres of influence. As Dhaka looks to modernize its military – which it must, if it is not to fall hopelessly behind – it can use this strategic leverage to its advantage.
Energy resources in the Bay of Bengal, over which Bangladesh competes with both India and Myanmar, are providing a strong incentive for investing in naval and air capabilities especially. Dhaka opted for Russian equipment last month – buying $1 billion worth of arms – partly because it probably has more confidence in Russian equipment than it does in their Chinese equivalents, and also because Moscow extends credit.
The most interesting change is that, in the past, Bangladesh was so poor that military procurements were always questionable. It’s great to see the country emerge and genuinely be in a position to afford to provide for its own security – as well as other, more basic – needs.