So by now you've probably seen the pictures of nationalist demonstrators in mainland China looting Japan-linked businesses and burning Japanese-branded cars. Whilst the anger of the demonstrators is obvious and extreme, for anyone who's observed China for any significant length of time, the suggestions seen in various places that this might drive China's leadership into a war with Japan seems very wide of the mark for the following reasons:
- In the word's of Charlie Custer's excellent post on the riots: "China’s Anti-Japan Riots Are State-Sponsored. Period." - far from demonstrators pushing the government into taking action, its the government that is driving the demonstrations. China both has the capability for clamping down on demonstrations of the size seen thus far and is willing to use it where it feels they may be going in the wrong direction. Indeed, CNN reports riot police intervening when a local government office was attacked, and there have also been reports of police singling out pro-democracy demonstrators mixed in with nationalists and arresting them.
- This does in fact fit a long running pattern for such demonstrations, running through the 2005 anti-Japan demonstrations, then the 2001 anti-US demonstrations, right back to the demonstrations sparked by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Just as is described in this eyewitness account, the demos in Beijing in all cases consisted of demonstrators being marched past the offending embassy in groups of a few hundred, venting their rage, and then being hustled onward by the Chinese police. Elsewhere, depending on the attitude taken by the local authorities, the demonstrators have been allowed to burn and smash properties, but nowhere will they be permitted to threaten the government.
- There is nothing to fight for. The islands themselves are of little or no value and are incapable of sustaining significant numbers of inhabitants. Depending on who you believe they either have very little fresh water, or a very small stream, or just enough to sustain up to two hundred people, but no more. A garrison left on the islands in their current state would be totally dependent on supplies coming in by sea or by helicopter (there is insufficient room for an airstrip), would be exposed to the elements, and would be sitting ducks for any ships or aircraft in the area. Any attempt to develop or fortify the islands to the point where a garrison might stay there for a prolonged period of time would be seen months ahead of time by the other side.
- Of course, the real prize in holding the islands is the gas and oil under the seabed surrounding the islands, but this would be impossible for one side to develop safely without the agreement of the other side. As Iran found out in the eighties, an oil platform is just a big floating target if someone wishes to attack it. Occupying the islands would do exactly nothing to change this, nor could either side genuinely hope to exclude the other from the air and sea around the islands on a permanent basis given the area that would have to be covered. Whichever country used force to permanently exclude the other from the area and develop the oil and gas resources themselves would be vulnerable to attacks on infrastructure similar to those launched by both sides in the 1967-70 Israeli-Egyptian war of attrition.
China's leaders neither have a realistic reason to believe that their country would gain economically from war with Japan, nor are they in a position where they might have to declare war because of pressure from a nationalistic public. Instead, as Jeremiah Jenne points out, this sudden out burst of government-directed anger against Japan is most likely an attempt at distraction from the CCP's current problems surrounding this year's transition of leadership in Beijing. Put simply, in observing Chinese political affairs you should never forget which hand holds the whip.
[Picture: An Iranian oil platform blazes in the aftermath of Operation Nimble Archer, 1987. via Wiki]