Limits of the China-Japan Tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

While many are growing increasingly nervous about a China-Japan confrontation, conflict is unlikely for a number of reasons.

By Sungtae “Jacky” Park

There is a growing fear among many Asia observers and pundits that the on-going territorial dispute could become a spark for a destructive, general war in Asia. The reality, however, is that there are several economic, political, as well as logistical (in military terms) constraints that make a war highly unlikely.

In economic terms, trade between the two countries is at historic high levels. A war would have devastating human as well as material costs. While economic interests and interdependence do not necessarily lead to peace, as history has proven with World War I, the current situation is different. Both political and military leaders before World War I believed that a war would be quick with small costs. Each side also believed that it would win. Leaders of both China and Japan today understand that the costs of a war would be astronomical and understand that victory is no certainty.

The CCP (the Chinese Communist Party) has a strong interest in making sure that the conflict does not turn into a war. One of the key pillars of the CCP’s legitimacy is economic growth. The Chinese economy is already slowing. A war would certainly put a halt to the so-called Chinese miracle. In the beginning of the dispute this year, Beijing actually discreetly encouraged protests in hope that they would divert the Chinese people’s attention away from China’s slowing economic growth and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions. As of now, however, Beijing is attempting to restrain the protests, fearing that they could pressure the government into an actual war.

Despite constitutional constraints, Japan's military has continued to evolve over the past half century, but the pacifist sentiment among the Japanese public still remains very strong. The Japanese who are inflaming the tension between the two countries do not represent the majority. At the official level, Japan’s decision to purchase the disputed islands is in fact a way for the Japanese government to be able to exercise more control and restraint over the entire situation by taking the islands out of private hands.

There are also logistical reasons why a war over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is unlikely. It is generally believed that neither China nor Japan at the moment has the military capability to wage a full-scale conventional war against the other. If China and Japan were to fight a war, the initial fighting would take place on water. The Chinese navy is mainly oriented towards coastal defense and does not have effective naval capabilities to project its power beyond the so-called “first island chain.”

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are part of the first island chain, but the Chinese military would have to stretch its naval capability to the limit in order to fight a war at that point. Even China’s on-going naval modernization is primarily for defensive purposes. The Japanese navy, on the other hand, does have some capability to project its power, but it is very limited. The Japanese military also does not have adequate ground forces to conduct fighting on the Chinese mainland. Even if violence breaks out, such a conflict would be very limited in scope and is highly unlikely that it would turn into a general war or escalate to a nuclear conflict.

A more uncertain factor that must be considered is that the security treaty between the United States and Japan extends to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The treaty makes it possible for the United States to become involved in a military conflict. So far, Washington has taken a neutral stance between China and Japan . The United States is opposed to any violent solution and shares concerns, particularly economic, with both China and Japan about the consequences of a general war. Any major conflict between China and Japan would kill the prospects of global economic recovery. Furthermore, because any conflict between China and Japan would be limited at best, any U.S. involvement due to its security obligation would most likely be limited as well.

In examining the potential for the use of military force, one must consider both intent and capability. Neither China nor Japan has the intent or the capability to fight a war over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. While the rhetoric between the two countries may be fierce, it remains subject to reality.

Sungtae Park is a M.A. Security Policy Studies student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has also written articles for CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Brandeis International Journal.

Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English via Flickr.


What we may well be seeing is China testing the resolve of the US to back Japan in this ostensible regional border dispute. The timing is interesting in that it coincides with the run home in the US presidential elections when the current US administration is obviously preoccupied with clinging to power. While Obama is content to big note himself over the US seals hitting a spent Al Qaeda leader cowering in a Pakistani mud compound he obviously prefers to appease an aggressive nation like Iran which is clearly arming for nuclear war. Could Obama be relied upon to take it up to China over the disputed islands on behalf of Japan before the situation escalates into military conflict. China is becoming expansionist and has taken to pressing a territorial claim that was unthinkable a decade ago when the US was much more evidently strong in its resolve. Beware, the dragon awakes and is in no mind to greet the rising sun. Out on its own, Japan is perhaps a year away from nuclear armed ICBM's. I doubt the PRC would wait around for that to happen. This could all end very badly indeed if the US chooses not to draw the line in the sand with the PRC and fast.




**due to South Korea being an ally of the US, the Americans might sit out this one and let japan take care of it's own mess.

I disagree that China do not have the intent and resolve to defend its claims using whatever capability it can command. It has willingly entered into a state of armed conflicts with India, Russia, Vietnam when the stake is high while trying to control or limit the scale of the confrontation in years past. In this case, the political and historical stake is extremely high to cede territory so close to Taiwan (who also lay claim to the disputed area). China's current objective is not to occupy the island using force but will absolutely do a show of force if challenged by Japan's escalation of rhetoric or any air or naval action that enforce their unilateral claim. The international community have been encouraged to stay out of the conflict by China, with the exception of a few that think they can gain advantage in taking side with Japan (Philippines and the self exiled Tibet religious clan). The Japanese right wing extremist is determined to use this to militarize Japan again. I believe they will succeed to trigger a armed confrontation from China in response. On China's side, they rather defer this as long as the ruling government of Japan show cooling and sweep it under the rug. It requires both side to make a joint statement and announce talks that will take place in the future. In the mean time, It is obvious China has the advantage n expanding it's air and naval power while Japan's hands are tired to expand unless they can trigger a limited engagement. I see Japan wanting very much to do so because there is better opportunity to bring them back to a world power so the cost is worth it. The right wing in Japan is willing to take the punishment even though they will be blamed, for bringing back their former glory.

China wants Japanese blood.Using western-style rational doesn't work with China.

Why isn't this article dated?

But again the tension between the two giants can probably turn into an actual war if each side expect more benefits from the island. No matter how much military capability does each poses,still benefits expectations can drive the two to wage war over each.

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