Could the Senkaku/Daoyus Drag Asia into a War?

Could the standoff "over something intrinsically worthless - the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands," drag Japan, China and the United States into a war?

"It seems almost laughably unthinkable that the world's three richest countries - two of them nuclear-armed - would go to war over something so trivial," wrote Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, in a recent op-ed article in the Sydney Morning Herald. "But that is to confuse what starts a war with what causes it. The Greek historian Thucydides first explained the difference almost 2,500 years ago. He wrote that the catastrophic Peloponnesian War started from a spat between Athens and one of Sparta's allies over a relatively insignificant dispute. But what caused the war was something much graver: the growing wealth and power of Athens, and the fear this caused in Sparta."

White calls the analogy with Asia today "uncomfortably close and not at all reassuring. No one in 431BC really wanted a war, but when Athens threatened one of Sparta's allies over a disputed colony, the Spartans felt they had to intervene. They feared that to step back in the face of Athens' growing power would fatally compromise Sparta's position in the Greek world, and concede supremacy to Athens."

That analogy assumes that China, its economic and military power growing exponentially over the past two decades, is beginning to feel obstreperous enough to take on the greatest military power on the globe.

Ehsan Ehrari, the author of a new book, The Great Powers vs the Hegemon, published in 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan, cites statistics that probably indicate China is more circumspect than the overheated rhetoric would have us believe. The United States accounts for 46.5 percent of the entire world military spending budget, he points out. China today accounts for an estimated 6.8 percent.

Ahrari, the author of 11 books, is a veteran defense consultant who formerly taught at the National Defense University's Joint Forces Staff College is a Professor of West Asian Studies at the US Air War College. He also lectures at the NATO School, the George C. Marshall Center, and the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Civil-Military Relations and is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

China, has every intention of becoming a superpower, Ahrari points out in his analysis, a 266-page study of the great-power competition between not just the US and China but also with India, seeking to grow into a great power, and Russia, seeking to regain its global standing. "Neither the United States nor China is convinced that the competitive aspect of their mutual ties - it is competitive because they are both great powers, one of them is the superpower and the other wishes to be, and the lone superpower wishes to have no proto-peer - will remain so for the foreseeable future."

White, in his op-ed piece, says the Senkaku issue is "likewise a symptom of tensions whose cause lies elsewhere, in China's growing challenge to America's long-standing leadership in Asia, and America's response. In the past few years China has become both markedly stronger and notably more assertive. America has countered with the strategic pivot to Asia. Now China is pushing back against President Barack Obama's pivot by targeting Japan in the Senkakus.

As White points out, the Japanese themselves genuinely fear that China will become even more overbearing as its strength grows, and they depend on America to protect them. But, Aharari writes, "US-China relations are driven by constant apprehension on the part of the lone superpower regarding the true intentions underlying china's rise. For its part, has been equally concerned about calming America's anxieties."

All of the littoral states surrounding the South China Sea are concerned about US staying power in the event of chinese assertiveness. The Obama "pivot," the growing assertiveness of the US to keep its military potentially in harm's way, is meant to answer those concerns. In 1997, as China furiously rattled its rockets at Taiwan, "test-firing" missiles near the island, US President Bill Clinton responded by sending the US Seventh Fleet down the 160-km-wide Strait of Taiwan. Whether China felt it had made its point, or whether the presence of the world's most formidable navy was intimidating, the test firing stopped. Certainly, it is questionable if the US could pull off that stunt again.

In last fall's furious protests in China over the Japanese response on the Senkaku/Diaoyus, Japanese cars were trashed, businesses were intimidated, boycotts were instituted against Japanese products. But the US presence and pivot was never a part of the equation.

The risk, White writes, "is that, without a clear circuit-breaker, the escalation will continue until at some point shots are exchanged, and a spiral to war begins that no one can stop. Neither side could win such a war, and it would be devastating not just for them but for the rest of us. No one wants this, but the crisis will not stop by itself. One side or other, or both, will have to take positive steps to break the cycle of action and reaction. This will be difficult, because any concession by either side would so easily be seen as a backdown, with huge domestic political costs and international implications."

Beijing, he continues, "apparently believes that if it keeps pushing, Washington will persuade Tokyo to make concessions over the disputed islands in order to avoid being dragged into a war with China, which would be a big win for them. Tokyo on the other hand fervently hopes that, faced with firm US support for Japan, China will have no choice but to back down."

But, Ahrari says, Deng Xiaoping's decision to get China involved in a global economic interaction started a process of transformation of that country into a "manufacturing juggernaut." China in the 21st century, he points out, "has developed an enormous stake in the smooth functioning of global economic institutions and has been comfortable with the exercise of ‘system maintenance' at the global level."

Thus, he feels, China may rattle its rockets again, as it did in September and October. But it will rattle them with a purpose. Intimidation, not only of Japan but of all of the countries on the edges of the South China Sea and Taiwan may feel the dragon's hot breath. But hopefully the teeth will remain sheathed.