Monday, 17 September 2012

The Third Sino-Japanese War (and why it's not going to happen)

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:

    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]


Ji Xiang said...

It certainly seems likely that the Chinese government is using this issue as a distraction from the imminent change of leadership.

At the same time, it may well be that on the Japanese side the issue is also being used as a distraction from domestic problems, or more likely that right-wing politicans are using nationalism as a vote-winner in the next elections.

After all, it was Tokyo's governonr who precipitated the crisis with the totally unnecessary move to buy the islands, which were already under Japanese rule.

In any case, I agree that the tiny dmonstrations in Beijing are sponsored by the government. I also agree that there will be no war.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Ji Xiang - Apologies for getting stuck in the spam filter, blogger's been acting up of late.

Yes, Ishihara's been playing up the issue as a vote-winner, but I don't see any reason to think the Japanese national leadership can be blamed - after all, their moves are directed mainly to preventing Ishihara from developing the island as he was threatening to. As has been pointed out elsewhere, his son stand's a good chance at being the Japanese prime minister one of these days if the LDP can ever win back control. I have no idea if he is as hard-line as his father though.

Of course, buying the islands is a total non-issue and there is no reason why it should spark kind of protests that have been seen. This is especially the case given that things which would be more likely to spark anger (the arrest of fishermen in the area, the stopping of ships etc.) have occurred without major protest. Logically speaking, if Japan does not own the islands, then the title they are buying is equally worthless.