On February 20 2014, the Financial Times reported that a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officer, speaking to FT anonymously, said that China is training for a “short, sharp war” with Japan and its allies (which include Australia and India). On February 23, 2014, the New York Times reported on the US-Japan Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, as if it was something entirely new. Iron Fist occurs every year, yet, this year, the Times ran the headline “In Japan’s Drill with the U.S., a Message for Beijing.”
War games often are used to as a message to potential rivals, although, in this case, the Times headline is a little hyperbolic. While it is true that war games are sometimes conducted for the purpose of showing off to or intimidating a potential rival, there is hardly anything remarkable about the facts reported in these two newspapers, especially when the story--Chinese-Japanese tension--is ongoing. This story has been an international issue that has been making headlines for several years. There has been and continues to be a general fear in the world that China will have a war with someone soon. Here we are, however, with news stories about three big players in Asia training for war with each other, as if the inevitability of that war has suddenly become more certain. Sort of.
Because Japan and the US conduct Iron Fist every year, there is no doubt they would conduct the exercise, even if China were not seen as a looming threat, and they would have to practice defending and retaking islands because that is the geography with which Japan has to contend. Of course, it is true that China presents the principle threat to Japan, and has specifically threatened to seize Japanese islands. Yet, whenever the major newspapers run stories on China-Japanese tension, the notion is that war is looming. However, I do not think so, at least not in the short term. The status quo between China and Japan will persist through the near future. There is tension in the relationship between the countries, but they will be able to avoid conflict over the next few years years, if China and Japan will continue, and increase, their bilateral communication.
There is less tension between China and Japan in the economic arena. Beijing will want Japan to continue its high level of engagement in the Chinese economy, and reverse the divestments we saw in the last two years. Talks on the China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement are ongoing. It is hard to tell how long these talks will last before they result in an agreement, but the very fact of such talks is a good sign for the relationship between the three countries concerned. They can dispel their suspicion just enough for cordial economic relationships. Sometimes, talking is all you need, even when the talks do not go anywhere. However, Japan will need some assurance that rioters are unlikely to damage Japanese property in the future. The summer of 2012 showed that while the Chinese Communist Party is willing to allow widespread anti-Japan demonstrations, the Party has the capability to make demonstrations stop when the national leadership decides enough has happened. Beijing can give the Japanese that necessary assurance. Even if a free trade agreement does not materialize, further economic integration can reassure the respective governments that they have some good intentions towards each other and create more groups on both sides with a greater interest in peace than conflict.
Even if economic developments improve relations in Northeast Asia, military rivalry will remain and the territorial disputes are likely to remain unresolved. Neither China nor Japan is willing to move on the issue, but it is possible for that dispute to linger because no one’s survival is linked to the fate of the disputed territories. The territorial dispute will help drive military tensions, which are likely to continue. There are other causes of military tension. China needs to continue modernizing its military. This can unnerve its neighbors, including Japan. Japan, for its part, has modern military technology and doctrine, but limited capability due to its constitution and lack of experience. Japan’s present administration (and possibly many voters) wants to amend the constitution and remove the pacifist clause. If this goes through, then Japan will be able to rebuild its military capability and become a ‘normal’ state again.
And of course, we, the United States, have nothing to gain from a war with China and much to lose. While China could garner prestige from a military victory over the United States, it also risks losing too much; too many difficult to replace young people, too many economic opportunities with both the United States and China’s Asian neighbors would be lost by war. Asia’s middle and minor powers (South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand to name a few) have expressed anxiety over China’s ascent, arising from their histories of living under Chinese hegemony that no one but China seems eager to revive. A Chinese military victory over Japan and the United States would frighten the rest of Asia, and force them to change their foreign policies, but not necessarily to policies that would be more China friendly.
China and the United States have large, impressive militaries capable of inflicting severe damage on each other. Yet, if China wants to harm the American homeland, it would have to risk the consequences of using its nuclear arsenal. In contrast, the United States can use allies and bases in the Pacific to threaten China with conventional weapons. Chinese military capability still lags behind the US in terms of personnel experience, technology, and deployment of forces.
China, Japan and the United States do have mutual interests beyond their economies. All three countries want peace to reign on the Korean peninsula. North Korean missiles can threaten Japan, while China wants to prevent South Korea from pursuing nuclear arms in response to North Korea’s program and the United States does not want to lose another 30,000 people fighting over there.
War between China and Japan or China and the U.S. is far from a sure thing, but continued joint military exercises between the U.S. and Japan are.