A war between the United States and China, should one occur, is less likely to start like World War II, with a belligerent invading other sovereign nations, and more likely like World War I, when a regional incident involving an allied third party triggered a descent into global catastrophe. The most likely scenario — tensions surrounding North Korea and the South China Sea notwithstanding — is a conflict between China and Japan.
Since 1951, the bilateral Security Treaty Between The United States And Japan has obliged Washington to defend Tokyo should it go to war with, say, China. Japan and China’s historical animosity, which stretches back centuries and reached a head in World War II, is reflected today in each country’s overwhelmingly negative views of the other. In 2012, for example, protesters rioted in the streets of several Chinese cities over Japanese efforts to tighten their grip on the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
These small, uninhabited islands, called the Diaoyu chain by the Chinese, constitute one of the most significant flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific region, in part because of their vast amounts of offshore natural resources — gas, oil, fish — but even more because of their symbolic aspects. Peter Dutton, who directs China Maritime Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, calls the Senkakus “a focal point for the challenge of power between China and Japan.” Dutton argues that influence in the East China Sea and East Asia will be among this century’s defining issues: can Japan stem the erosion of its influence, or will the region be dominated solely by an increasingly assertive China?
Dutton also says the islands “serve as a political metaphor for domestic audiences.” In authoritarian systems such as China, he says, “legitimacy is not automatic” and governments “have to make sure to deliver on security and nationalistic promises.” In democratic Japan, public pressure is more direct. If the dominant Liberal Democratic Party acquiesces to Chinese expansion, it risks alienating a base that vehemently values Japanese sovereignty. Both nations are thus pressured by their citizens at home, while simultaneously being influenced by the geopolitical situation in the East China Sea.
Neither China nor Japan is likely to declare war outright over the Senkaku Islands. Both nations have far too much to lose, as does the United States, which would be obliged to come to Tokyo’s defense. What is more probable is a series of miscalculations sparked by an incident such as the seizure of an island by China, or a collision of military ships operating in nearby waters. Popular outcry in both countries would press Tokyo and Bejing to escalate the situation, which in turn could lead to conflict on a larger scale.
Would the United States honor its agreement to Japan in the event of a Sino-Japanese conflict? Despite President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, his administration has offered reassurances to U.S. allies in East Asia. “The United States will maintain our close coordination and cooperation with the Republic of Korea and Japan, two democracies whose people want peace,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. “Our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan, to include the employment of our most advanced capabilities, is ironclad.” Largely because of such statements, Dutton says he expects an “expanding and deepening” of the U.S.-Japan alliance in coming years.
Peter W. Singer, strategist at New America and author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, compares the current climate in the East China Sea to the alliance commitments and heightened popular nationalism that swirled in the runup to World War I. Just as the tumultuous politics of Austria-Hungary’s eastern domain did not directly concern pre-WWI Great Britain, the Senkaku Islands have no material or symbolic significance for most Americans. Yet just as a regional incident ultimately forced London to defend its continental allies, Washington would have to side with Japan or risk a collapse of its own global network of alliances.
What can global leaders do to avoid this scenario? Singer says the leaders of Japan, China, and the United States must become better aware of potential flashpoints and how they might get out of hand through various escalation scenarios. In particular, he says, civilian leaders do not adequately understand the complexity of the defense side and the likelihood of a crisis in the East China Sea. Because of this, Singer advises all three governments to be more open about their “red lines”: first, decide for themselves what adversary actions would drive them to declare war, and second, make this crystal clear to each others’ leaders. He also recommends that Japan and the United States improve deterrence through defense spending and better cooperation between the U.S. military and the Japanese self-defense force.
Thomas Berger, a Boston University international-relations professor who specializes in East Asia, divides potential solutions into “management” and “reconciliation.” Berger notes that China wants to “win without fighting” — to force Japan to give up the Senkakus without going to war. But if Japan continues to assert its sovereignty, and if the United States refuses to abandon its ally on this issue, Berger argues that in the short term Washington must pursue a strategy of managing the situation. “To do this, it must signal through military exercises and defense investments that it is committed to its alliance with Japan, thus deterring China from invading the Senkaku Islands,” he says.
In the long term, Berger argues, China and Japan should work together to defuse the situation in a policy of “reconciliation.” They might, for example, reach an agreement that divides the resources in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, while leaving the issue of sovereignty untouched. Another potential solution is a “ritualized system” in which China softens its rhetoric and shrinks its military presence in the area, while still asserting its sovereignty by routinely sending ships into the disputed waters. Finally, Berger suggests that Chinese leaders might publicly “shelve” the Senkaku Islands issue, as Deng Xiaoping did in 1978, effectively recognizing the intractability of the dispute and focusing on other matters in the Sino-Japanese relationship. He says the “ball is in China’s court” for reconciliation with Japan.
So, what steps can the United States take to facilitate peace in the East China Sea? Above all else, Washington must promote dialogue between leaders in Beijing and Tokyo. Last year, Beijing suspended official communication with Taiwanese leaders. A similar break with Japan would exponentially increase the chances of accidental escalation in the East China Sea. This scenario must be avoided at all costs, and Washington should be clear that it will unilaterally sanction any party that cuts diplomatic ties. Longer term, the United States could seek to arbitrate a division of resources around the Senkakus or the creation of Berger’s “ritualized system.” Such proposals could take years of careful diplomatic preparation, since they would seem to thwart China’s designs. Still, as Churchill said, “jaw-jaw” is always better than “war-war.”