THE BLOG

War With China?

12/10/2013 02:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

The United States and China are now playing a dangerous game which could lead to war. Beijing is asserting its new military might; and Washington is accepting the challenge. The lamentable aspect of these developments is that the conflict is over virtually nothing--a couple of rocks in the East China Sea. Unfortunately, both sides see principle and pride at stake; and this is precisely the situation which could lead to war.

For the past year, China and Japan have been pushing their rival territorial claims to some uninhabited islands--little more than clumps of rocks in the East China Sea known as Senkaku to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to the Chinese. The two sides have done more than use words. Each has taken dangerous and provocative military measures. Japan has scrambled fighter jets in response to Chinese over flights. Japanese ships came close to the islands with live fire exercises carried out by its navy.

The Chinese on November 24 escalated this territorial dispute by declaring a new air-defense identification zone covering the islands. Beijing warned of military action against foreign aircraft that do not honor its declaration.

This prompted a vigorous response from the United States, which has treaty obligations to Japan. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sharply criticized China's action and reiterated Washington's commitments to defend Japan in case of a conflict. (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 25, p. A8.)

Then the Obama administration took a provocative step of its own. It called China's bluff by sending two B-52 bombers to fly across the disputed islands. This was part of the U.S. pivot to Asia, showing our Asian allies they can count on the U.S.

Inspired by the U.S. move, Japan and South Korea followed by sending surveillance aircraft of their own into the area. Refusing to be intimidated, China sent warplanes to patrol the zone. (Washington Post, Nov. 29, A1.) All of parties are playing an exceedingly explosive game which could lead to war.

As between Japan and China, the origins of the current dispute are in the 1930s when Japan conquered much of China and inflicted enormous misery upon the Chinese. Memories are long in Asia, and unlike Western Europe where France and Germany have moved on from those dark days, China and Japan have never had a real reconciliation. Emotions are inflamed in both countries each year when Japanese pay homage to men they view as war heroes whom the Chinese regard as criminals.

The conflict is not merely on a national level. There is a deeply personal component as well to exacerbate the situation. The current Japanese leader, Mr. Abe's grandfather and mentor, administered Japanese Manchuria in the 1930s at the same time Chinese President Xi's father was part of the Chinese communist forces fighting the Japanese. (Financial Times, Nov. 19, p. 11.)

In addition to nationalist sentiment, there is unfortunately also an economic aspect to the current conflict between Japan and China. The Japanese which until recently had the world's second largest economy have watched in dismay as their enemy China has rapidly surpassed them. At the same time, the Chinese military has been expanding at an unprecedented rate. Not surprisingly, this has caused consternation in Tokyo and inflamed public opinion.

Unfortunately, the issue is no longer merely between China and Japan. The Chinese military has enhanced power in the new Xi administration. The hawks in Beijing are tossing down the gauntlet to Washington. (Financial Times, Nov. 29, 2013, p. 11.) The Obama administration has been criticized for abandoning allies in the Middle East. It must stand behind its so-called "pivot to Asia" which was announced with great fanfare.

All of these factors are contributing to a powder keg which could explode into war at any time. And the U.S. with its treaty obligation to Japan will be drawn into it.

If that were to happen it would be the height of absurdity. Unlike the war in Afghanistan which Obama called a war of necessity, going to war with China over these rocks in the East China Sea would be a war of stupidity.

Given the situation, the U.S. decision to challenge the Chinese with B-52 bomber over flights makes no sense at all. Nor do U.S. government statements attacking China's behavior toward its neighbor. (Wash. Post., Nov. 29, p A-11.)

We should not be inflaming passions. Rather, we should be trying to calm them. Isn't there an adult in the room?

The Obama administration claims to be committed to diplomacy in its foreign policy. This was the rationale for the Iranian interim agreement and Kerry's effort to play peacemaker with Israel and the Palestinians.

The U.S. should follow the approach of diplomacy in this dispute between China and Japan. It should try to persuade the parties to find a way to avoid a war which is neither necessary nor inevitable. One alternative is for the parties to take this territorial dispute to international arbitration. But please let's try to negotiate a resolution. While the U.S. and China have serious differences to resolve, they should not go to war over this issue.

Unfortunately, between the U.S. and China the possibility of events spinning out of control is significant. This was the basis for my recent novel, The China Gambit. Hopefully, there will be more rationality in truth than in fiction.