U.S. Looms Large Over China’s Sovereignty Disputes

As tensions between China and Japan hit a new recent high this week over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, and with Japanese forces joining U.S. marines in the west Pacific today for the start of a month-long military drill, Xinhua News warned the Americans to stop adding fuel to the diplomatic fire:

Though no country was named as the imaginary occupier, an official with the Japanese Ministry of Defense hinted that the war game is targeted at China, according to a report by Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun.

Given the recent flaring tensions over the Diaoyu Islands, the deliberate decision to carry out such an agitative drill serves nothing but fuels the fire, as it will aggravate the situation and jeopardize any future efforts for a peaceful settlement.

The move also gives the lie to Washington’s alleged neutral stance towards the China-Japan dispute and gives birth to more suspicion over the United States’ true intentions in the Asia-Pacific.

Whether China likes it or not, however, the U.S. is entrenched in Asia Pacific’s brewing maritime sovereignty storm. For The Wall Street Journal on Monday, U.S. Senator James Webb puts the latest round of tensions in context:

In truth, American vacillations have for years emboldened China. U.S. policy with respect to sovereignty issues in Asian-Pacific waters has been that we take no sides, that such matters must be settled peacefully among the parties involved. Smaller, weaker countries have repeatedly called for greater international involvement.

China, meanwhile, has insisted that all such issues be resolved bilaterally, which means either never or only under its own terms. Due to China’s growing power in the region, by taking no position Washington has by default become an enabler of China’s ever more aggressive acts.

The U.S., China and all of East Asia have now reached an unavoidable moment of truth. Sovereignty disputes in which parties seek peaceful resolution are one thing; flagrant, belligerent acts are quite another. How this challenge is addressed will have implications not only for the South China Sea, but also for the stability of East Asia and for the future of U.S.-China relations.

What if China and Japan did trade naval blows, as they did during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895? While unlikely, James Holmes of the Naval War College handicaps the fight for Foreign Policy:

Whoever forges sea, land, and air forces into the sharpest weapon of sea combat stands a good chance of prevailing. That could be Japan if its political and military leaders think creatively, procure the right hardware, and arrange it on the map for maximum effect. After all, Japan doesn’t need to defeat China’s military in order to win a showdown at sea, because it already holds the contested real estate; all it needs to do is deny China access. If Northeast Asian seas became a no-man’s land but Japanese forces hung on, the political victory would be Tokyo’s.

Japan also enjoys the luxury of concentrating its forces at home, whereas the PLA Navy is dispersed into three fleets spread along China’s lengthy coastline. Chinese commanders face a dilemma: If they concentrate forces to amass numerical superiority during hostilities with Japan, they risk leaving other interests uncovered. It would hazardous for Beijing to leave, say, the South China Sea unguarded during a conflict in the northeast.

And finally, Chinese leaders would be forced to consider how far a marine war would set back their sea-power project. China has staked its economic and diplomatic future in large part on a powerful oceangoing navy. In December 2006, President Hu Jintao ordered PLA commanders to construct “a powerful people’s navy” that could defend the nation’s maritime lifelines — in particular sea lanes that connect Indian Ocean energy exporters with users in China — “at any time.” That takes lots of ships. If it lost much of the fleet in a Sino-Japanese clash — even in a winning effort — Beijing could see its momentum toward world-power status reversed in an afternoon.

Here’s hoping China’s political and military leaders understand all this. If so, the Great Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012 won’t be happening outside these pages.

See also a People’s Daily piece from Tuesday in which Peking University professor Liang Yunxiang details the legal basis of China’s sovereignty claim over the Diaoyu Islands.