The clash between China and Japan over five small islets in the East China Sea has gone into hyper drive over the last month with China's declaration of a new Air Defense Identification Zone, the immediate defiance of that zone by both Japanese and U.S. military aircraft, and a visit by the American vice president to both countries to try and smooth things over.
As the probability of a military clash continues to increase, the big question is whether such a clash could bubble over into a full-fledged war with major casualties and considerable harm to the global economy. The answer to this pressing question may be found in analyzing five additional questions -- and the conclusion is unsettling.
#1: Are the Islands Worth Fighting Over?
Japan calls them the Senkakus, China the Diaoyus. These five small islets with less than three square miles of territory are located about 120 miles northeast of Taiwan; and the 1986 Law of the Sea Treaty has given them immense economic value.
This United Nations treaty provides for a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone that conveys all resource rights both beneath the sea and underneath the sea bed. While the waters around the islets have been fertile fishing grounds for centuries, the real prize is in potentially huge oil and gas reserves.
Strategically, these islets lay in the middle of an important gateway through which Chinese merchant and military ships must pass through to access the relatively deeper waters of the Pacific Ocean. These islets also fit well into China's broader "string of pearls" forward basing strategy.
Across the East and South China Seas to the western end of the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, China is aggressively developing a network of installations; and China has already perfected the art of building useful military garrisons on islets far smaller than the Senkaku/Diaoyus.
Just consider Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. A bullying China took this reef by force from the Philippines in 1994 -- not coincidentally right after the U.S. navy withdrew its forces from the Philippines.
Today, tiny Mischief Reef is now home to a full-fledged military outpost built right on stilts and its radar systems are capable of guiding cruise missiles aimed at Japan or Vietnam -- or American aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
#2: Does China or Japan Have the Stronger Territorial Claim?
China claims it discovered and used the islets centuries before Japan annexed them in 1895; but such historical claims are not generally recognized in modern international case law. China also claims Japan stole the islets and was legally bound to return them as a condition of its WWII surrender. However, the 1943 Cairo Declaration, 1945 Potsdam Declaration, 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, and 1952 Treaty of Taipei never mentioned the islets.
In contrast, Japan meets every criterion of international case law. It annexed the islands as terra nullius -- territory belonging to nobody. Its citizens have conducted business on the islets under Japanese administrative and regulatory control. Japanese ships have regularly patrolled the islands, and it has enjoyed continuous occupation of the islands for more than 100 years.
China's relatively weaker legal hand makes it unlikely it will ever press a claim in the international courts so that route for dispute resolution is a dead end.
#3: Is War Between China and Japan Over the Islands Likely?
War seems almost inevitable given the arc of inexorable escalation that began in 1992 when China broke an unspoken truce by publishing a law specifically declaring the islets sovereign Chinese territory. Since that time, China has progressively escalated its military confrontations; and both its military vessels and heavily armed civilian vessels now regularly patrol the waters of the islands in clear breach of Japanese sovereignty.
The latest escalation: China has declared the islet's air space to be part of it Air Defense Identification Zone. That the United States immediately defied this zone with a B-52 bomber fly-over underscores the situation's seriousness.
#4: Will The United States Be Drawn Into a War With China?
America is committed by treaty to defend Japan in the event of an attack on any territory within its administration. Declared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010: "The United States has never taken a position on sovereignty, but we have made it very clear that the [Senkaku] islands are part of our mutual treaty obligations."
Secretary of State Chuck Hagel has reiterated this pledge in 2013; and the clear danger is that some type of incident -- or accident -- may lead to a skirmish that, through a chain reaction, leads to a broader war. Think "Sarajevo" if you doubt this could happen.
#5: What Can Be Done To Stop This Madness?
An "appeasing" Japan could simply turn the islands over to China -- or at least share the resource wealth. However, the growing power of nationalists within Japan makes that a non-starter.
The U.S. could walk away from its commitments to Japan. However, that would mean sailing away from Asia as Japan would surely evict the U.S. military and other countries now housing U.S. installations like South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines would likely quickly follow suit.
That leaves any real solution up to China. Rationally, it makes little sense for it to risk its economic growth over a conflict in the East China Sea. However, China's bullying bid for the Senkaku Islands is part of a much broader strategy. Its modern day Communist Party emperors seek nothing less than to drive the U.S. military out of Asia, gain control of both the East and South China Seas, and assert China's historical hegemony over a new middle kingdom that stretches from the Indian Ocean in the West to the Kurile Islands in the East.
China's military ambitions are well worth remembering the next time you buy a product Made in China -- and thereby help finance the Chinese war machine.