Tuesday, November 19, 2013

• China and Japan are heading for a collision - Gideon Rachman

China and Japan are heading for a collision
by Gideon Rachman - Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Amid all the noise about the economic reforms launched last week by China, it was easy to overlook another important change. The Chinese government is setting up a National Security Council, co-ordinating its military, intelligence and domestic security structures. The model is said to be America’s NSC. 

But China’s move also parallels developments in Japan, where Shinzo Abe’s government is also setting up a National Security Council. Under ordinary circumstances, this modernisation of military and security structures would not be cause for concern. But these are not ordinary times. 

For the past year, China and Japan have been engaged in dangerous military jostling, as they push their rival territorial claims to the Senkaku islands. In one recent week, Japan scrambled fighter jets three times in response to Chinese overflights. China, meanwhile, complains that Japanese ships came provocatively close to a recent live-fire exercise carried out by its navy. With tensions high, the revamping of the two countries’ security structures takes on a more ominous tone. It is hard to believe that either China or Japan actually wants a war. 

The bigger risk is that military posturing around the islands will lead to an accidental clash – and that the governments of both nations would then be trapped by their own nationalist rhetoric, making it very hard to climb down. Both sides now routinely accuse each other of irresponsible behaviour and out-of-control nationalism. Both insist that, if pushed, they are willing to use military force to defend their claims to the uninhabited rocks that they are disputing. In Beijing recently, I listened to a top general from the People’s Liberation Army insist that China would never make the mistakes of Japan in the 1930s by taking the path of militarism. 

Just weeks earlier in Tokyo, I had heard a Japanese official drawing a different conclusion from the same history: “The Chinese are making exactly the mistakes we made in the 1930s,” he asserted. “They are allowing the military to break free from civilian control. And they are challenging American power in the Pacific.”
A conflict between China and Japan – the second and third-largest economies in the world – would obviously be disastrous. It could also easily become a global conflict. 

The US is pledged to defend Japan through the US-Japan Security Treaty. And, although the Americans say that they take no formal position on who has sovereignty over the islands, they do recognise that they are under the administrative control of Japan – which means they are covered by the security treaty.
The whole dispute is shaped by the continuing growth in the economic might of China. Current projections suggest it is likely to be the largest economy in the world by 2020 – claiming a title that has been held by America since the 1880s. And although the US military has a size and sophistication that China is not yet close to matching, Chinese military spending is growing fast – at a time when the Pentagon is retrenching. 

Japan has just announced a small increase in its own military budget. But the country is drowning in debt, and knows it cannot keep pace with Chinese military spending. These shifts in economic and military weight have created uncertainty about the future balance of power. And uncertainty tempts powerful nations to test each other’s limits and capabilities. An extra layer of danger is added by the bitter legacy of history. In China, President Xi Jinping argues that one of the main tasks of the Communist party is to overcome the historic humiliations his country has suffered – foremost among which was invasion by Japan. 
But in Tokyo, the Abe government has adopted a more nationalist rhetoric about the past. 

The dispute is deeply personal for both men. Mr Abe’s grandfather and mentor administered Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, at a time when President Xi’s father was part of the Chinese Communist forces, fighting the Japanese. If China and Japan are to avoid a mutually destructive collision, both sides need to change course. 

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