China Keeps Peace at Sea

As China and Japan move to ease tensions over the Diaoyu Islands, Allen Carlson at Foreign Affairs says China cannot afford a military conflict with any of its Asian neighbors:

It is not that China believes it would lose such a spat; the country increasingly enjoys strategic superiority over the entire region, and it is difficult to imagine that its forces would be beaten in a direct engagement over the islands, in the South China Sea or in the disputed regions along the Sino-Indian border. However, Chinese officials see that even the most pronounced victory would be outweighed by the collateral damage that such a use of force would cause to Beijing’s two most fundamental national interests — economic growth and preventing the escalation of radical nationalist sentiment at home. These constraints, rather than any external deterrent, will keep Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, from authorizing the use of deadly force in the theater.

But Xi does not seem blind to the principles that have served Beijing so well over the last few decades. Indeed, although he recently warned unnamed others about infringing upon China’s “national core interests” during a foreign policy speech to members of the Politburo, he also underscored China’s commitment to “never pursue development at the cost of sacrificing other country’s interests” and to never “benefit ourselves at others’ expense or do harm to any neighbor.”

Of course, wars do happen — and still could in the East China Sea. Should either side draw first blood through accident or an unexpected move, Sino-Japanese relations would be pushed into terrain that has not been charted since the middle of the last century.

However, understanding that war would be a no-win situation, China has avoided rushing over the brink. This relative restraint seems to have surprised everyone. But it shouldn’t. Beijing will continue to disagree with Tokyo over the sovereign status of the islands, and will not budge in its negotiating position over disputed territory. However, it cannot take the risk of going to war over a few rocks in the sea. On the contrary, in the coming months it will quietly seek a way to shelve the dispute in return for securing regional stability, facilitating economic development, and keeping a lid on the Pandora’s box of rising nationalist sentiment. The ensuing peace, while unlikely to be deep, or especially conducive to improving Sino-Japanese relations, will be enduring.

Chinese state media reports China’s ambassador to Japan is still ‘optimistic’ about ties, Xinhua reports:

 Chinese Ambassador to Cheng Yonghua said Sunday that he is optimistic for the future of China-Japan relations, despite the lingering tension between the two nations.

“What the two countries need to do now is to improve crisis control and avoid accidents getting out of hand,” said Cheng, who is in Beijing for the annual session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body.

He said the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands, which were triggered by Japan last year and have not been well handled by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, “is the biggest challenge in improving China-Japan relations.”

“As the saying goes, whoever started the trouble should end it,” the ambassador said.

Despite attempts to cool down the Diaoyu Islands dispute, AP reports China has issued another attack on Japan over the disputed region. This statement comes days ahead of the opening of the Chinese national legislature’s annual session:

The spokesman for the legislature’s chief advisory body, Lu Xinhua, told reporters at a Saturday news conference that if any unintended clash occurred as a result of their patrol boats and planes operating close to one another, Japan would “be held solely responsible for all consequences.”

Read more about Diaoyu Islands dispute, via CDT.

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