China-vs-Japan (2) 

February 9, 2013

On 30 January, a Chinese Jiangwei II-class frigate entered the disputed waters around the Senkaku Islands, a cluster of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands.  A Japanese destroyer was waiting.

When the two warships were only 3 km apart,  the Chinese frigate turned on its fire control radar that aims its 100mm gun and C-802 anti-ship missiles and “painted” the Japanese vessel.  The Japanese destroyer went to battle stations and targeted its weapons on the Chinese intruder.

Fortunately, both sides backed down. But this was the most dangerous confrontation to date over the disputed Senkakus. Japan and China were a button push from war.

Soon after, a Japanese naval helicopter was again “painted’ by Chinese fire control radar.  Earlier, Chinese aircraft made a clear intrusion over waters claimed by Japan.

China’s Peoples Liberation Army HQ ordered the armed forces onto high alert and reportedly moved large numbers of warplanes and missile batteries to the East China Sea coast.

A US AWACS radar aircraft went on station to monitor the Senkaku/Diaoyus – a reminder that under the 1951 US-Japan  mutual defense treaty,  Washington recognized the Senkaku Islands as part of Japan and pledged to defend them if attacked.  Japan seized the Senkakus as a prize of its 1894-95 war with Imperial China.

China’s state-run media claimed the US was pushing Japan into a confrontation with Beijing to keep China on the strategic defensive.

Japan’s newly elected government led by conservative PM Shinzo Abe vowed to face down with China. Spasms of angry nationalism erupted in both feuding nations.  The Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, who also claim the Senkakus, chimed in with their territorial demands.

A special Chinese crisis group led by new President Xi Jinping has been set up to deal with the Senkakus – meaning any clash there may be more likely to become a major crisis.

Shades of August, 1914, when swaggering, breast-beating, and a bloody incident triggered World War I, a conflict few wanted but none could avoid.

Japan is in a difficult situation over the Senkakus.  Its nearest air bases are in Okinawa, 500 km away;  Japan’s main airbases are 1,000 km further to the Northeast.  Japan’s F-15J strike aircraft have the combat range to cover the Senkakus but they cannot linger for long with full bomb loads due to the long distances involved.  By contrast, Chinese warplanes based on the coast near Fuzhou are well within range of the Diaoyus.

Japan’s defense architecture was built to stop an invasion by the Soviet Union.  Its so-called Self Defense Forces are able but not configured for long-range offensive operations.  China’s are.  They have been redesigned with a major amphibious invasion of Taiwan and a fight with the US Seventh Fleet in mind.

Unless  US carrier strike groups intervened,  Japan would probably face defeat in a clash with China over the islands, a fact that has Tokyo deeply worried.  This latest crisis again reminds Tokyo that it is naked before China’s nuclear weapons.  This week’s incursions over Northern Japan by Russian warplanes did nothing to calm Tokyo’s nerves.

However, war between China and Japan sounds as crazy and illogical as war between China and the US.  Japan is China’s largest foreign investor, having discreetly built much of China’s industry.  China is a major export market for Japan. A war against China would shatter Japan’s prosperity and force it to embark on a hugely expensive armaments campaign, including building nuclear weapons – which it has the capability to do in 90 days.

China has no desire to fight the United States unless absolutely necessary, and less to spark a US trade embargo. China holds over $1 trillion in US government debt. Beijing has no desire to panic all of East Asia.

A war over the Senkaku/Diaoyus would be like the 1998-2000 desert war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, described as “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  No matter how much fish swim around the Senkakus, or how much oil and gas may be found underwater, nothing justifies a war.

But, then again, nothing justified World War I that began by a murder in obscure Bosnia.  Pray for cool heads in Beijing and Tokyo.

30 Margolis

copyright  Eric S. Margolis 2013







This post is in: Asia, China, International Politics, Japan, USA

14 Responses to “A close call in the China Sea”

  1. KeninCanada says:

    “…nothing justified World War I that began by a murder in obscure Bosnia.”
    Eric….please……we now know that WWI was an oil war. England held Iraq, Germany wanted oil. The very first movement of troops in WWI was England sending men to Iraq.
    Eric, I expected better of you.

  2. We like to blame the Chinese for poor and even toxic products and shoddy workmanship and then turn around and complain, that the multinationals pull up stakes in north America and take their production lines to China, to exploit the cheap labor there.
    Those multinationals do not leave the decision-making and the quality control to the Chinese, because these companies want to make money and lots of it. That is, why they moved to China in the first place. On top of that, they recognize no borders and respect no sovereignty. If we want to complain about the poor quality of the Chinese products, then we should take our bellyaching to these multinationals.
    If I rent a barn from you to set up the production of say canned beans. And if I then hire you and members of your family, who do you think would supply the specifications for the production and who should I put in charge of quality control? Both would be my responsibility and in my hands.
    Now take another look at China, or any off-shore country, that makes products to be imported here and who is in charge of the end-result?
    We can buy products, that we assume are made here, but the parts for it can come from Indonesia, China, Taiwan, India or any other country for that matter and the final product would be assembled here and even that is not necessarily so and we think we buy superior quality, because on the package it says ‘Made in the US’ or ‘Made in Canada’. But all those parts are made to the supplied specifications.
    It was never the intention, that China would become such a great power and sure not in such a short time, but that is one of the negative side-effects of our gambling greed. Then instead of buying what we want on the open market, like commerce is supposed to be conducted, we start illegal wars under false pretenses and try to steal those goods.
    The petrodollar is now on the endangered species list and the west has lost the gamble. Only an insane war might stave off the demise, but that is the same as cutting off your nose to spite your face. The center of gravity is shifting eastward and there is nothing sane we can do about it.

  3. If the UN were a real entity, then this sort of problem should be resolved by them with all parties involved agreeing to honour the outcome of the UN decision.

    The same issue exists with the Arctic.

  4. Great article as always. I love how you provide the greater context to the dispute by mentioning the incredible economic interdependence of all the parties. Hopefully this will ensure war will not erupt. This is the greatest difference between today and WWI. Today transnational corporations have economic interests in many countries worldwide. A most emerging and poor countries have economies consisting of multinational corporations from several different nations. These corporate interests are interested in profits and only in war if they increase profits. So hopefully these corporate interests who have much greater influence over their governments than you or I will lobby hard to avoid the economic losses that war would cause. In WWI the ruling elite were NOT transnational corporations with extensive dealings with the protagonist countries. The ruling elite were privileged royal families and local industrialists that controlled domestic economies. Most wars now are ethnic struggles for more autonomy or imperialist wars by great powers that want to integrate smaller nations in to their economic system of subservience. (like the current Mali expedition).
    Most wars are economic struggles over resources. That made the second Ethiopia-Eritrea war that much stranger. Describing it as “two bald men fighting over a comb” is humorous but this is an example of an idiotic war fought for the worst reasons. The war was actually expedient for the Meles dictatorship in Ethiopia. It helped keep his domestic population forget about his poor economy and domestic oppression. His regime actually had ties with the Eritrean government when they both were part of ethnic independence movements (Meles with the Tigray group who cooperated with the Eritrean independence movement). It was a war fought to keep the domestic population’s minds off of the real problems of the day.

  5. Thank you Mr.Margolis for another enlightening column on ths ongoing dispute between Japan and China.A lot of your posted information is news to me as I don’t ever expect ALL the facts to be published in the mainstream media.

    I have my own thoughts about what is happening here,being the cynic that I am,but I have no hard facts to back it up.Although what worries me is that massive one trillion debt owed China by the US,while China, despite it’s grossly polluted air,basic human rights infringement and the ever increasing use of unpublicized toxic chemicals in it’s export products…ditto for exported food products that I refuse to consume, because of industry is just wringing it’s hands holding this massive debt…and accumulating… by a country that would get involved in a war at a moment’s notice should China attack Japan and/or the disputed Senkaku islands.However my better judgement leads me to believe that this is unlikely to happen…much like the Korean war mongering happening quite frequently today.As I mentioned in Mr. Margolis’ last week’s column,I am more concerned about what may happen in the Mideast…moreso than in any other part of the world.War mongering has been going on since the beginning of mankind…lots of times nothing became of it,but just one spark could trigger wars.Wars have only ever made the rich richer,but in the end a lot of innocent people have lost their lives over them.Sure there is a lot of infrastructure to be rebuilt which could take years….good for the economy,but never worth the price of needless suffering and millions of deaths.

  6. solum temptare possumus says:

    What we see outwardly by these three governments is for show. Politicians appearing to take a strong stance over sovereignty, to let their respective peoples think they are defending the country and its population and perhaps to some, honor.
    The weak link in stability is Japan. The United States has a peaceful transition at least every four years and more often than not, eight years.
    China is similar with a transition every ten years. Japan has a government that appears strong but backs down when things get serious; demanding that honor be maintained resulting in Prime Ministers and their government resign. It is not a stable situation, and I fear Eric is correct in that the United States may have to uphold its obligations.
    The real question is “What are the behind the scenes oligarchs planning?
    I can’t believe they want war. It is not good for increasing control of the world economy. And is this not their goal?
    Sit sensum communem et frigidor Thracam capita praevalent
    “To Common Sense and Let Cooler Heads Prevail”

    • Mike Smith says:

      I would argue against the ” stability ” of the four year peaceful transition.

      The problem with it is that with a party change, any deal, treaty, negotiation point, etc is up in the air.
      How do you deal with that changing / exploding relationship ?
      Such as North Korea with Clinton, then North Korea with Bush2
      What was the point in negotiating deals with the first to have them torn by the second ?
      same thing happens with NATO, NAFTA, Middle East Peace accords, and a hundred other examples.
      How do you enter into honest negotiations dealing with long term issues when each new player wants to either change the game or be scene forcing the other party into concessions not brought to the original table.
      China is better off in that regard, because even with changes in leadership they have not had such a change in long term philosophy. Their objectives remain the same, only method evolves.

      Illegitimi non carborundum

  7. Mike Smith says:

    Japan is in trouble…
    Economically it is on a long slide posting its biggest trade deficit in years.
    Socially it has an aging population that will be leaving the workforce without anyone to replace them, plus the benefits and support for the retiring workers will have to be maintained.
    Historically the addition of foreign workers has been the solution to this problem which has been faced by many, but culturally the Japanese do all they can to limit this approach.
    Moving away from Nuclear power has also had a dramatic effect on the Japanese economy, and the biggest player in clean natural gas in their neighborhood is Russia, and Putin is pushing to jump in and supply that need… at a price that will help Russia immensely in the long term but only keep Japan at the status quo.

    Why is Japan making such a fuss over these islands ?
    Sable rattling does not equal national pride if you get your ass handed to you or you need the Americans to bail you out.
    The simplest solution would be to either partner with the Chinese and develop the resources together… or alternatively simply sell them the islands outright. The fuss being made negates either option, and may find Japan backed even further into an economic corner. If their American friends face yet another economic crisis, which sadly is likely… their export market may dry up further… combine that with China making an economic play of its own on Japan…
    This guy has enough trouble on his plate without having to reign in the foreign policy boys.

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