China, Japan, and the Third World War: An American Problem

               Finding a single cause for either of humanity’s World Wars is impossible, as any slightly engaged high school social studies student can explain. Was the First World War fought over markets and colonies, or to suppress a rising Germany, or maybe to avenge the death of an Archduke? Was the Second World War fought to avenge German national pride, or to secure resources for the appetites of a growing Japan, or was it the inevitable consequence of the decline of the imperialist powers? This is a fascinating and exhaustive debate, though a debate this article is only indirectly concerned with. This article will instead try to engage whether the Third World War might have an even simpler cause: a scattering of uninhabited Pacific rocks.
               As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s not unimaginable. If the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne could have caused the Europeans to sentence millions of young men to death-by-meatgrinder, it is not difficult to imagine a future where mankind will shake its collective head over that senseless slaughter in the pacific which opened the 21st century. Japan and China have made a series of increasingly provocative and all too serious gestures which more than just allude to the possibility of a war over the chain of islands the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese claim as the Diaoyu. Japan has scrambled jet fighters, China sends naval patrols. The more one reads the news coming out of the west pacific, the more likely it looks that 2014 could be reminiscent of 1914.
               Why these rocks, and why these countries? The example of Germany helps explain this. A rising Germany before the First World War put the old powers – the French and British of the 19th century – on edge. A rising China today puts the old powers – the Americans and the Japanese of the 20th century – on edge.  Japan and China are two countries steeped in historical grievances, much of which comes from the Second World War when Japan killed literally countless millions of Chinese. Even today Tokyo apologizes only sparingly and when they do only partially.   Added to historical grievances, Japan has recently been overtaken by China as the world’s second largest economy; this compounded with increasing Chinese aggression and a foreign imposed constitution preventing any real Japanese military muscle suddenly makes Japan seem extremely insecure – and increasingly more like the Britain to China’s Germany.  The islands come in as a convenient place for each country to make a stand against the other. The rocks were seized from China in the late 19th century by Japan; America in turn administered them after World War Two until the 70’s, at which point they returned to Japanese sovereignty. For China the islands, which they claim were taken from them illegally by the Japanese, are a point of national pride and a place to begin staking claim to a sphere of influence commensurate with their new found power. For the Japanese it is also an issue of national pride, the place to finally begin standing up to years of Chinese economic, naval, and more recently physical bullying. Throw in the fact that the waters below these islands could hold valuable resources and the brew left stewing is extremely potent.
               If it boils over, the consequences will be enormous. China and Japan are, besides two of the most important pieces of a deeply globalized world economy,  crucial trading partners. Their combined population is roughly one and a half billion. Add to that the people living in the likely battlefield along the West Pacific, including at the very least the Koreas and Taiwan, and more likely including also Vietnam and the Philippines, and the total pushes close to a third of the world’s population that might be drawn into a possible conflagration. It is important to note that these additional players were also victims of brutal Japanese imperialism, though today find more to fear in the ambitions of China. Ultimately though the key player here is neither Japan nor China nor any other West Pacific country, but rather the United States.
               America, since obliterating, occupying, and shaping in its image the nation of Japan, has enjoyed deep strategic relations with that country; Japan was a cornerstone of America’s Cold War empire. Today that alliance still stands, and America has made it clear that its mutual defense treaty with Tokyo covers the disputed island chain. Further, the American security guarantee has been extended to nearly every country jittering nervously around China’s periphery. Because of the nature of its treaty with America, and its imperial legacy in the pacific, Japan will be forced to be in the defensive in any conflict with China. The terms of its security treaty with America, and the continued sympathy of its former victims, dictate this. So regardless of the statements or actions of Japan, the impetus is on China to restrain itself. With this established, it is crucial to divine the Chinese perspective in this conflict.
               If Japan is insecure, China must be downright paranoid. Consider the Chinese government for a moment, looking out at the world. They see a Taiwan which has remained defiantly independent of mainland China since the Communist’s 1949 takeover, a Taiwan with American security guarantees and weapons systems. They see countries like Vietnam and the Philippines eyeing them wearily, and receiving American assurances. They see Myanmar’s shift to the west, driven in part by fear of Beijing. They see Australia allowing over two thousand American marines to be deployed on their soil. They see Obama’s strategic pivot. They see aircraft carriers and other American hardware buzzing all over waters they claim to be a part of their core interest area. They see India moving cautiously from an established Cold War stance of non-alignment to one of cooperation with Washington. Among all of this their consolations are few: minor infighting between America’s champions South Korea and Japan, plus a North Korean ally which is really more of a nightmare than a reassurance.
               Their view at home is equally if not more bleak. In the Party’s long time and unspoken contract with the Chinese people since the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, where they provide ever higher standards of living in exchange for fealty to their authoritarianism, it appears that they are struggling to deliver. Their population is also graying because of a disastrous one child policy.Dangerous information trading between average Chinese is becoming increasingly difficult to control, despite the government’s “Great Firewall”. Citizens are speaking out, and even gathering together in protest – citizens who must remember bitterly the Tienanmen Square slaughter of 1989.  An enormous migrant population now chafes in the poisonously polluted mega cities. A system of labor camps across the country spawn resentment but have received only tepid reforms. There are even public bouts of infighting at the top (see Bo Xilai).
               Given all this it is actually not surprising that Beijing is resorting to an aggressive stance over something which seems comparatively so insignificant, despite their shaky geopolitical situation. Nationalism, saber rattling, and xenophobia abroad are the friends of a tyrant in trouble, a distraction from disappointment in government at home. But is the Chinese Communist Party serious about its threats? Do they really want a war with mighty America and her legions of well armed, high tech Asian allies?
               No, probably not. The Communist Party has a history of starting foreign conflicts for domestic gain. It was Mao Tse Tung’s dream to achieve during his lifetime a military machine on par with that of the Soviets or Americans; nearly every Taiwanese Strait crisis was really just an attempt by Mao to wring his Russian allies for more military secrets (the Soviets were terrified of a nuclear war with America over a Chinese problem, they more or less gave Mao The Bomb for his manipulations). But weighted against the example of the Taiwanese crises there is the counterexample of Korea. In starting the Korean War, Mao essentially offered up hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteer” lives to Stalin’s ambitions in Korea – which were to test both his new jet fighters and America’s post-war combat mettle. Mao was to do this many times around the world, including once with Nasser during his war against Israel. This callous view of the value of Chinese life is chilling.
                But Mao is long dead, and his memory is going the way of Stalin’s in Russia. What is left is a Party of autocratic bureaucrats who are Communist only in name and in symbolism – Communist symbolism always being particularly accessible and snappy. It seems to me like these island clashes are more indicative of domestic positioning than of the rumblings of a coming war. Yet even so, these sorts of things tend to get out of hand. No European country really wanted the blood bath they got in 1914-1918, the chain of events simply exploded faster than anyone could react. First the Archduke is shot and then suddenly northern France is swarming with Germans and lacerated with trenches. First the Chinese send patrol boats to the disputed island chain and then suddenly there are mushroom clouds over Shanghai and Tokyo. I’m being extreme, but the point is still valid: these things escalate, severely.
               This being said, it is important to examine a few of America’s most obvious options: One, we could clobber our rival. Two, we could let Japan fend for herself. Three, we could play mediator between the two rivals.
               I don’t know if any of those are good options though. Obviously the first is stupid and sadistic. The second would ruin the foundation of American security, which is the trust of allies across the globe in American commitment. I would argue that the third is also a bad choice. America must be firm with China. Appeasement is a historically proven bad idea. This does not mean that we should support the nationalism of Tokyo either. I argue that the best path for America is to be firmly in support of Japanese ownership of the islands in face of Chinese belligerence, while also clearly expressing a desire to avert armed conflict. This assures Beijing that America will not use the conflict to start the war which they see lurking in the shadows on the horizon, and it assures Japan that America chooses her over China –  and for that matter every other nation America has an alliance with over China. This is not Cold War style containment, but rather firm enforcement of an American led liberal international order. Both countries have legitimate claim to the islands. If China continues to push ownership over the island by force, America and her mighty arsenal will oppose that claim. If, however, proper negotiations are undertaken, there is no reason why China cannot have a stake in these islands. This is not the early twentieth century, there are rules, and countries can work together to achieve common goals. America should encourage the rules of her international system, while also treating her friends with the loyalty they deserve.

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One thought on “China, Japan, and the Third World War: An American Problem

  1. America should pull a King Solomon and propose to split the islands in two. The US would then back the country that doesn’t agree to the compromise, as they obviously care most about the islands and are its true owners. If neither country agrees to compromise: coin flip diplomacy. If both nations have equal right/stake to the land, there’s no way to divide it between them, and war needs to be taken off the table, then why not play a game of heads or tails? Wouldn’t that just be the trillion-dollar platinum coin solution for this situation?

    Regarding the platinum coin thing (I know it’s a tangent, but I meant to blog about it, never got around to it, and now the national conversation has moved on…), I still haven’t heard any real criticisms of the idea other than it being super silly and making us feel like we live in a cartoon world where complex problems can be solved with childishly simple solutions. While I’m sure that there are more sophisticated critiques of the idea that all of the US’s debt can be paid back if the federal reserve were to just mint two trillion dollar platinum coins, I imagine that a similar complaint might be made in response to my proposed solution above. Your suggestion however, that America should side with Japan, sounds quite reasonable.

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