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Something extraordinary, and extraordinarily dangerous, is happening out in the East China Sea west of Okinawa.
Since last weekend, Japan and China have taken turns violating each other’s declared Air Defense Identification Zones (or ADIZs), which mutually extend over the eight tiny, uninhabited islands known as the Senkakus (if you are Japanese) or Diayou (if you are a Chinese speaker). Both countries lay claim to the islands, which are really little more than rocks; that wouldn’t make for much of an international dispute if not for the fact that they lie within easy sailing distance of the Chunxiao offshore oil and gas fields, which (according to reliable surveys) may contain four to five times the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Japan and China have been pushing and shoving each other over possession of the Senkakus for some time–I even wrote a column about it for the New York Post a few years back. But things have escalated since Japan decided to purchase the Senkakus outright from its private owners in a show of defiance of Beijing–and said it would shoot down any Chinese drones that ventured too close to the islands.
Meanwhile, Japan claims PLA Navy ships have twice locked their fire control radar on Japanese military craft cruising near the islands–although without opening fire.
Now our Air Force is in the middle of it too, flying joint missions with Japanese warplanes through the Chinese ADIZ, with Chinese warplanes scrambling and following.
This is how wars get started in that part of the world. It was in 1937 that Japanese and Chinese soldiers began trading shots over the disputed Marco Polo Bridge, which quickly escalated into the Second World War in Asia–except this time it’s the Chinese, not the Japanese, who want to establish an Asian empire and regional hegemony, and the Japanese who’ve become our allies in trying to prevent it.
Our excuse for joining in this game of airborne chicken is that we have mutual security obligations with Japan. But it’s not clear that our involvement at this point is helping; in fact, I’d say it’s raising Beijing’s confidence that they are going to prevail and that Japan will back down.
They’ve watched President Obama fold his hand in one foreign crisis after another–Libya, Syria, and now Iran. They’ve seen him publicly draw “red lines” only to erase them days later.
Why should they think we’ll behave any differently this time–especially when they think they now have the chops to meet us in a head-on military confrontation in their home waters (they don’t, but that’s another issue)?
In short, what we’re seeing unfold in the skies over the East China Sea are the wages of weakness, and the miscalculations nations can make when they think a rival lacks the guts to stand firm. And sending Joe Biden to Tokyo this week won’t make us look any tougher.
No one, of course, wants a full-out fight, let alone World War Three—least of all Beiing. But neither did Hitler in August 1939. He assumed France and Britain would back down over Poland, just as they had over Czechoslovakia. He knew their record of feckless appeasement, and thought he had their measure. Unexpectedly, they didn’t back down: and everyone knows where that miscalculation led.
All it’s going to take is someone’s onboard radar system picking up a blip where there shouldn’t be one, and the wrong button pushed at the wrong time, for this contest of wills to go very wrong–and we could find ourselves in a very messy situation in the East China Sea.