Japan’s purchase of three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea has sparked off the latest controversy in Sino-Japanese relations. Celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of relations between the two nations were cancelled and nationalist bickering – evolving to choreographed public demonstrations in some Chinese cities – has persisted.
With most of the Japanese Navy’s coastal patrol defending their latest acquisition and a fleet of Chinese vessels from the dubiously named Maritime Surveillance Agency confronting them, some analysts are worried about the potential for armed conflict between the two East Asian giants.
Whilst such a scenario seems unlikely in the immediate future – with the Chinese in particular focused on the upcoming Congress and subsequent changing of the political guard – maritime disputes in both the East China and South China Sea are the biggest multilateral security dilemmas in the region at the moment.
Whilst many people fret about the potential for a US-China showdown over Taiwan, such a conflict would be extremely surprising. The Taiwanese have been careful to appease their Chinese neighbours (or overlords) in recent years and their people have no interest in threatening the economic and social stability of their nation. Equally, the US would be quick to dissuade the Taiwanese from any rash claims of independence. The Chinese, meanwhile, are sure to try and avoid making a decision that may lead to conflict with the US which remains its military superior.
Maritime issues are different. A stray torpedo, an overeager commander or a miscalculation could bring some of the world’s biggest powers to the brink of war. Moreover, any dissension between Japanese, Chinese and American interests is likely to be exacerbated by other regional states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, whose politicians and military leaders have become increasingly assertive in outlining their territorial desires.
Put simply, the East and South China Sea have historically been testing grounds for the resolve and intentions of the region’s states and, in particular, their military wing. Whilst China has proved willing to exchange fire with both Vietnam and the Philippines in the recent past, it has stopped short of military aggression against the US and Japan. Were that to change during the current mini-crisis, then a more aggressive Chinese foreign policy would certainly be unveiled. The PLA have recently revealed new weapons systems, their first aircraft carrier and an AEGIS-capable battleship. Are these for show? Or is their intent in the PLA’s posturing?