Will 2013 Bring War Over the Diaoyu Islands?

Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun on Thursday said the Chinese military is on guard against Japanese jet activity near the Diaoyu Islands, according to Xinhua News:

“We will decisively fulfill our tasks and missions while coordinating with relevant departments such as maritime supervision organs, so as to safeguard China’s maritime law enforcement activities and protect the country’s territorial integrity and maritime rights,” Yang said.

Yang said it is “justifiable” for the Chinese military to provide security in waters under China’s jurisdiction, and other countries are “in no position” to make irresponsible remarks in this regard.

“China-Japan defense relations are an important and sensitive part of bilateral ties, and the Japanese side should face up to the difficulties and problems that currently exist in bilateral ties,” Yang said.

While China and Japan have run patrol ships around the Diaoyus over the past few months, tensions escalated earlier this month when Japan scrambled fighter jets after it alleged that a Chinese surveillance plane violated its airspace above the territory. Observers have differed over whether China would use force over the islands. Australian academic Hugh White warned in the Sydney Morning Herald today that the U.S. and Japan could go to war with China over the islands next year unless each side overcomes the “mutual misconceptions” that have led to the current standoff:

Where will it end? The risk is that, without a clear circuit-breaker, the escalation will continue until at some point shots are exchanged, and a spiral to war begins that no one can stop. Neither side could win such a war, and it would be devastating not just for them but for the rest of us.

No one wants this, but the crisis will not stop by itself. One side or other, or both, will have to take positive steps to break the cycle of action and reaction. This will be difficult, because any concession by either side would so easily be seen as a backdown, with huge domestic political costs and international implications.

It would therefore need real political strength and skill, which is in short supply all round – especially in Tokyo and Beijing, which both have new and untested leaders. And each side apparently hopes that they will not have to face this test, because they expect the other side will back down first.

For The Diplomat, former Australian journalist and diplomat Rory Medcalf calls White’s prediction “a big call indeed:” 

Of course it would be folly to count on a prolonged crisis simply fizzling out. But both China and Japan are more than capable of strategic patience. Neither wants to force the issue in the immediate term. Each government has an interest in trying to exert greater control over the various institutional players — not just navies but also civilian maritime agencies — whose operational decisions could make the difference between calm and crisis.

The good news is that Japan’s newly-elected conservative Abe government has no pressing reason to pursue further provocation. And whatever its forceful rhetoric, the new Chinese leadership has little near-term incentive to prod Japan further; an armed confrontation with Japan that ended badly for China would be worse for the credibility of China’s leaders than no clash at all.

Doubtless there will be a need for cool heads and assiduous incident-management in the months ahead. But considerably more likely than war in 2013 is the possibility that, for all their tough talk, all sides are already working quietly to engineer a decent interval after which they can resume some serious diplomacy.

See also previous CDT coverage of the Diaoyu Island dispute.