Storm Over the Senkakus

 

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.

There are 42 comments.

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  1. The Mugwump Inactive

    The key to brinksmanship is discovering the other side’s tolerance for crisis before he discovers yours. 

    • #1
    • December 1, 2013, at 8:07 AM PDT
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  2. Fred Cole Member

    Its easy to blame Obama for this, but I think the real culprit here is our alliance with the Japanese. Would they be this brazen if they didn’t have the backing of the US military? Do they have a more free hand to throw rocks at the Chinese hornet’s nest because they know we’ll bail them out? Are we gonna end up fighting World War 3 with the Japanese because our allies picked a fight and dragged us into it? This is indeed how world wars get started. This isn’t our fight, but our treaty obligations might end up dragging us into it.

    • #2
    • December 1, 2013, at 8:23 AM PDT
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  3. ctlaw Coolidge
    Arthur Herman: … 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.

     

    I thought that the nationalization was done to prevent the private owner from developing them. Japan feared that development would provoke the Chinese. Instead, the sign of weakness spurred the Chinese on. As mere agitprop for gullible domestic and international audiences, the Chinese declared the nationalization to be hostile rather than conciliatory.

    Speaking of agitprop, your tying of the nationalization and the threats to shoot down drones unfairly casts the Japanese as aggressors. It falsely implies both that the former was part of an aggressive action rather than a conciliatory one and that the latter was unprovoked.

    More generally, I disagree with the moral equivalence positions you are taking. The ChiComs are racist lunatics. The absurdity of their positions on territory is best seen their claiming the entire South China Sea up to the coasts of the Philippines, etc.

    I also disagree that our involvement is negative. It’s critical to support our limited credibility in the world.

    • #3
    • December 1, 2013, at 8:31 AM PDT
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  4. James Gawron Thatcher

    Arthur,

    We have a fools administration that manufactures a completely unnecessary pseudo treaty with a dangerous adversary over the objections of both allies and neutrals in the region.

    We have had a fools world view of Marxist China manufactured by the likes of Pravda on the Hudson’s twin geniuses Friedman-Krugman. Although there is record growth for the 300 million along the coast, inland there is a gulag system to match or exceed Stalin’s. The 1 billion inhabitants of China inland are impoverished slaves of a brutal Marxist State.

    Inherent contradictions really are inherent contradictions. Although the Chinese People and the Iranian People both have great potential, they are both ruled by merciless ideologue dictatorships. When we relentlessly deceive ourselves about these facts we end up with a fools foreign policy.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #4
    • December 1, 2013, at 9:00 AM PDT
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  5. Matthew Gilley Inactive

    Fred, reference world events beginning December 7, 1941 and lasting through August 9, 1945.

    • #5
    • December 1, 2013, at 9:29 AM PDT
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  6. David Williamson Inactive
    Arthur Herman:

    And sending Joe Biden to Tokyo this week won’t make us look any tougher. 

    Yeah, but he arrived with a plane full of shotguns – what could possibly go wrong?

    • #6
    • December 1, 2013, at 9:38 AM PDT
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  7. Fake John/Jane Galt Thatcher

    No worries. Obama and crew will back down. Biden is only there to save as much face as possible while doing so.

    • #7
    • December 1, 2013, at 9:51 AM PDT
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  8. rico Inactive
    Fred Cole: This isn’t our fight, but our treaty obligations might end up dragging us into it. · 1 hour ago

    This is our fight. Chinese hegemony in the East China Sea would compromise US interests in the region, regardless of the mutual defense treaty with Japan.

    Furthermore, China is clearly the aggressor here. Japan’s self-interest in defending free navigation of air and sea in the region is consistent with U.S. interests and the interests of neighboring countries.

    • #8
    • December 1, 2013, at 10:36 AM PDT
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  9. rico Inactive
    Arthur Herman:

    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.

    Maybe. But this is hardly an argument for simply ceding territory to an aggressor. This would be every bit as dangerous as the ceding of Czechoslovakia was in 1939. Indeed, your penultimate paragraph argues against “feckless appeasement.”

    • #9
    • December 1, 2013, at 10:54 AM PDT
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  10. DrewInWisconsin, Thought Leader Member
    Arthur Herman:

    And sending Joe Biden to Tokyo this week won’t make us look any tougher.

    I would laugh if the situation wasn’t so serious.

    • #10
    • December 1, 2013, at 11:00 AM PDT
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  11. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman Post author
    rico
    Arthur Herman:

    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. 

    Maybe. But this is hardly an argument for simply ceding territory to an aggressor. This would be every bit as dangerous as the ceding of Czechoslovakia was in 1939. Indeed, your penultimate paragraph argues against “feckless appeasement.” · 0 minutes ago

    Yes, feckless appeasement is always a bad idea, either in the East China or in the Middle East. And one reason is an aggressor, in this case China, will think they can get away it because others have, just the lesson Hitler learned from watching the West fail to stop Mussolini in Abyssinia–or indeed Japan in Manchuria.

    My point is: who can expect Beijing not to draw the same conclusion, from Syria and Iran? 

    • #11
    • December 1, 2013, at 11:04 AM PDT
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  12. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman Post author
    Fake John Galt: No worries. Obama and crew will back down. Biden is only there to save as much face as possible will doing so. · 1 hour ago

    We might back down, but Japan might not. They’ve a lot at stake here, and may hope an incident will give us no choice but to back them up with a strong show of force–like we backed the Taiwanese in 1996.

    But we don’t have the force dominance we had then; and China is determined to back down like that again. And South Korea is watching too: they resent China’s aggressive bullying in the East China Sea as much as Tokyo does. So this series of provocations one could spill over onto the Korean peninsula, as well. 

    This is how things get out of hand. Very fast.

    • #12
    • December 1, 2013, at 11:12 AM PDT
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  13. Matthew Gilley Inactive

    Dr. Herman: What do you think of dividing China’s attention here? For all their foot-stomping, their naval and force projection capacity is still pretty modest. Why not take a chunk of the Seventh Fleet and sail it south right through the middle of the Taiwan Straits in international waters?

    • #13
    • December 1, 2013, at 11:31 AM PDT
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  14. Crow's Nest Inactive

    As I said on Prof. Rahe’s recent post on the same subject, the establishment of an effective IADS, and the central importance of effective A2/AD techniques, have been longstanding Chinese military objectives–as in, since mid-80s and especially following Desert Storm.

    So, while the ADIZ is an escalation in the air environment, it is one facet of a larger push for strategic control of the First Island Chain through the whole of the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. It is not an isolated act.

    These recent events also underscore the PRC’s willingness to use external aggression to stabilize the internal political situation–a worrisome habit considering the population challenges created by the one-child policy.

    US responses must take that larger, slow-moving but steady grand strategy into account. Biden should leave no doubt in Beijing’s mind that the United States is committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace and does not recognize the PRC’s right to militarize this airspace. 

    That message would be infinitely more credible if our foreign policy thus far in this administration was not such a cluster.

    • #14
    • December 1, 2013, at 11:36 AM PDT
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  15. rico Inactive
    Arthur Herman
    rico
    Arthur Herman:

    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. 

    Maybe. But this is hardly an argument for simply ceding territory to an aggressor. This would be every bit as dangerous as the ceding of Czechoslovakia was in 1939. Indeed, your penultimate paragraph argues against “feckless appeasement.”

    Yes, feckless appeasement is always a bad idea, either in the East China or in the Middle East. And one reason is an aggressor, in this case China, will think they can get away it because others have, just the lesson Hitler learned from watching the West fail to stop Mussolini in Abyssinia–or indeed Japan in Manchuria.

    My point is: who can expect Beijing not to draw the same conclusion, from Syria and Iran?

    Yes, our_President_has_definitely_proven_himself_to_be unserious about the U.S. role in global security. That said, wouldn’t China be more inclined to aggression if we didn’t back up Japan?

    • #15
    • December 1, 2013, at 11:43 AM PDT
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  16. James Gawron Thatcher
    Arthur Herman
    Fake John Galt: No worries. Obama and crew will back down. Biden is only there to save as much face as possible will doing so. 

    We might back down, but Japan might not. They’ve a lot at stake here, and may hope an incident will give us no choice but to back them up with a strong show of force–like we backed the Taiwanese in 1996.

    But we don’t have the force dominance we had then; and China is determined to back down like that again. And South Korea is watching too: they resent China’s aggressive bullying in the East China Sea as much as Tokyo does. So this series of provocations one could spill over onto the Korean peninsula, as well. 

    This is how things get out of hand. Very fast. 

    Art,

    Is Biden going to Tokyo to plan strategy or to tell them to stop provoking China. You know when the Japanese breath the Chinese get provoked. Sort of like when the Israelis breath they provoke the Iranians. The BHO gang knows all about this dangerous behavior of their “allies?” and wants to make sure they stop that annoying breathing.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #16
    • December 1, 2013, at 11:45 AM PDT
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  17. BrentB67 Inactive
    Fred Cole: Its easy to blame Obama for this, but I think the real culprit here is our alliance with the Japanese. Would they be this brazen if they didn’t have the backing of the US military? Do they have a more free hand to throw rocks at the Chinese hornet’s nest because they know we’ll bail them out? Are we gonna end up fighting World War 3 with the Japanese because our allies picked a fight and dragged us into it? This is indeed how world wars get started. This isn’t our fight, but our treaty obligations might end up dragging us into it. · 4 hours ago

    I think in this situation the rocks are being cast by the Chinese.

    • #17
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:00 AM PDT
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  18. BrentB67 Inactive

    It is hard to go toe to toe with someone you owe more than a $1,000,000,000,000.

    • #18
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:01 AM PDT
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  19. BrentB67 Inactive
    Matthew Gilley: Dr. Herman: What do you think of dividing China’s attention here? For all their foot-stomping, their naval and force projection capacity is still pretty modest. Why not take a chunk of the Seventh Fleet and sail it south right through the middle of the Taiwan Straits in international waters? · 1 hour ago

    It has been done before. It was useful at one time for influencing negotiations. Not sure now. There is an old axiom about not sailing ships into the teeth of land based air power and missiles. China’s ability to project power at sea is modest. Their ability to wage war from land was respectable 15+ years ago and I imagine it has only improved.

    • #19
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:13 AM PDT
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  20. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman Post author
    rico
    Fred Cole: This isn’t our fight, but our treaty obligations might end up dragging us into it. · 1 hour ago

    Thisisour fight. Chinese hegemony in the East China Sea would compromise US interests in the region, regardless of the mutual defense treaty with Japan.

    Furthermore, China is clearly the aggressor here. Japan’s self-interest in defending free navigation of air and sea in the region is consistent with U.S. interests and the interests of neighboring countries. · 2 hours ago

    And others are watching,including South Korea. 

    It would just be better to have a better hand at the helm.

    There’s a Chinese saying, that the good helmsman steers his ship with the help of the waves; otherwise there’s a chance he’ll go under the waves.

    I don’t think Obama sees the waves at all.

    • #20
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:23 AM PDT
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  21. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman Post author
    BrentB67
    Matthew Gilley: Dr. Herman: What do you think of dividing China’s attention here? For all their foot-stomping, their naval and force projection capacity is still pretty modest. Why not take a chunk of the Seventh Fleet and sail it south right through the middle of the Taiwan Straits in international waters? · 1 hour ago

    It has been done before. It was useful at one time for influencing negotiations. Not sure now. There is an old axiom about not sailing ships into the teeth of land based air power and missiles. China’s ability to project power at sea is modest. Their ability to wage war from land was respectable 15+ years ago and I imagine it has only improved. · 11 minutes ago

    Quite right. Speaking of dividing people’s attention, a better idea might be after leaving Tokyo Biden take a swing over to Moscow–ostensibly to discuss Geneva and Syria. 

    Oddly, the administration’s misconceived new deference to Putin might give us more leverage in Asia than it will in the Mideast, if it’s handled right.

    Which it won’t be.

    • #21
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:27 AM PDT
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  22. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman Post author
    Crow’s Nest:

    These recent events also underscore the PRC’s willingness to use external aggression to stabilize the internal political situation. 

    That message would be infinitely more credible if our foreign policy thus far in this administration was not such a cluster. · 1 hour ago

    On these two points. 

    The danger is Tokyo seems tempted right now to do the same thing, stirring up popular opinion on this issue, in part to forestall even bigger nationalists like Shintaro Ishihara who want an ever more aggressive stance against the Chinese but also while economic reform seems stalled out.

    I’d use the term drift rather than cluster. Obama seems totally bored by foreign policy, just as he is with military matters–except when there’s an opportunity for ruminating on America’s past sins. As we saw with Benghazi, he and his inner circle are completely focused on how things play politically at home. I have no inside information but I would suppose whoever gets his ear gets a shot at making policy: Donilon, Susan Rice, Biden, Kerry–it’s a free for all. There’s no overall guiding plan beyond reducing American power. 

    • #22
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:41 AM PDT
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  23. Fake John/Jane Galt Thatcher
    Arthur Herman
    Fake John Galt: 

    We might back down, but Japan might not. They’ve a lot at stake here, and may hope an incident will give us no choice but to back them up with a strong show of force–like we backed the Taiwanese in 1996.

    But we don’t have the force dominance we had then; and China is determined to back down like that again. And South Korea is watching too: they resent China’s aggressive bullying in the East China Sea as much as Tokyo does. So this series of provocations one could spill over onto the Korean peninsula, as well. 

    This is how things get out of hand. Very fast. · 2 hours ago

    That may be so, but Japan may have to go it alone. With this administration, if I was a US ally I would not count on the US for help with anything. Treaty obligations be damned.

    This country does not want another war, especially one where we side with an old enemy. Could the American people be lead to it, yes, but this administration will not be the one to do it. 

    • #23
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:52 AM PDT
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  24. Al Kennedy Member
    Byron Horatio: I think we ought to give them a kick in the jewels and tell them to suit up if they want to stand up to their neighbor’s bluster. Not for these lazy nations to cry for US pacifiers every time. · 2 hours ago

    Japan’s constitution, which was imposed on them after the Second World War by America precludes them from doing this.

    • #24
    • December 2, 2013, at 1:56 AM PDT
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  25. BrentB67 Inactive

    A discussion of potential hostilities with China must include a financial/currency aspect as well as military. I recommend Kevin Freeman for those interested. Some of his team’s most recent thoughts here.

    • #25
    • December 2, 2013, at 2:01 AM PDT
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  26. Crow's Nest Inactive
    Arthur Herman: The danger is Tokyo seems tempted right now to do the same thing, stirring up popular opinion on this issue, in part to forestall even bigger nationalists like Shintaro Ishihara who want an ever more aggressive stance against the Chinese but also while economic reform seems stalled out.

    Sure. It is a common enough technique for consolidating power. I’ll buy that. 

    It is true that under such tensions the risks of misreading the intentions of one’s adversary (between the Japanese and Chinese) are high and can spark a wider conflict. But it is also true that throughout the Cold War the Russians would fly patrols over the Arctic in the vicinity of NATO’s air ID zone, interceptors would scrambled, and a dance would ensue. Similar situations in undersea warfare between our submarines and the Soviets.

    In any event, the Chinese apparently did not disregard foreign policy during the Third Plenum.

    • #26
    • December 2, 2013, at 2:12 AM PDT
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  27. Fred Cole Member
    Matthew Gilley: Fred, reference world events beginning December 7, 1941 and lasting through August 9, 1945. · 4 hours ago

    Its important to keep in mind that not every international dispute is World War 2.

    • #27
    • December 2, 2013, at 2:12 AM PDT
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  28. Fred Cole Member
    rico

    Furthermore, China is clearly the aggressor here. Japan’s self-interest in defending free navigation of air and sea in the region is consistent with U.S. interests and the interests of neighboring countries. 

    This isn’t as big or as high minded as that. (Please also note that this isn’t a Hitler at Munich thing.) This is an international pissing contest that China and Japan get into every so often. It’s usually driven by domestic politics at the moment on one or both sides.

    • #28
    • December 2, 2013, at 2:16 AM PDT
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  29. Al Kennedy Member
    Fred Cole: This isn’t our fight, but our treaty obligations might end up dragging us into it. · 17 hours ago

    I don’t agree Fred. Crow’s Nest (#14) is correct: this is a very important strategic question for the US. China believes that in order to become a warm water naval power, it must control the China Sea inside of what it calls the “First Island Chain”. America cannot give up its right to a presence there. The majority of the oil imported by South Korea, Japan, and China sails thru the Straits of Malacca. China currently has island disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the China Sea. I think more is at stake here than a minor dispute between Japan and China.

    • #29
    • December 2, 2013, at 2:32 AM PDT
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  30. Matthew Gilley Inactive
    Fred Cole
    Matthew Gilley: Fred, reference world events beginning December 7, 1941 and lasting through August 9, 1945. · 4 hours ago

    Its important to keep in mind that not every international dispute is World War 2. · 1 hour ago

    My point was (1) history did not begin yesterday and (2) even though you may not be interested in the rest of the world, the rest of the world is interested in you.

    Fred Cole  This is an international pissing contest that China and Japan get into every so often.  

    Try “since the beginning of recorded Japanese history.”

    • #30
    • December 2, 2013, at 3:36 AM PDT
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