War in the East China Sea could happen by accident

Wars have a nasty habit of starting unintentionally. In this particular year, it’s as well to remember Sarajevo. And by the way, what happened to China's "peaceful rise"?

The Senkaku Islands
Robin Mitchinson
On 6 January 2014 20:06

Why are China, Japan, America and South Korea getting into a fearful strop about a collection of rocks in the East China Sea? This is coming back onto the front pages of the serious media outlets and is not going to go away.

Korea is annoyed at both sides because it diverts attention from the much more dangerous situation in North Korea, a nuclear nation led by a psychopath. America leapt in rather prematurely; its treaty obligations rest on external threats of force, and we are not quite there yet.

So let’s get started on unravelling it.

Ostensibly, this is a territorial dispute as to ownership. China says the islands are Chinese and always were; the Japanese say that they have been theirs since the 19th Century and this has never been disputed until modern times.

America handed them over to Japan in 1970, after the WW2 occupation ended, for administration; no great task as the only sign of human presence is an abandoned fishing hut.

The material interests are fishing and potential oil finds. The extension of territorial waters is another major factor. But naturally, there is a back-story.

China is asserting itself as the regional power. Deviating from their policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ in the Asia region, it has started to put a bit of stick about. Perhaps this signals a new President putting his stamp of authority on a foreign policy shift. When Japan bought the three islands that it didn’t already own, China saw this as a provocation.

The Chinese imposed an Air Identification Zone extending over the over the Senkaku Islands. This is no big deal because all it involves is the captain of an aircraft  to identify himself and then switch to the designated transponder code. The USAF responded by sending a flying museum-piece through the zone, a pointless and silly bit of defiance where they have no locus at present.

Then, the Chinese sent their one-and-only carrier into the area. It is hardly a threat. Built under the USSR, it is a floating scapyard. It has no aircraft, and there was much jubilation when a Chinese pilot actually managed a landing.

The Chinese have no experience in operating carriers or deploying them in action. Its highly-publicised debut was for training and testing equipment. It was meant to push back US military dominance in the region. Instead it has reinvigorated the US military alliances. The United States Navy (USN) reckons it will take 50 years for China to arrive at where the US is at the present time in carrier operations.

So the ship can be safely regarded as a bit-player.

The Japanese Prime Minister then inflamed the dispute by visiting that wretched Yasakuni shrine for the first time, which the Chinese saw as another provocation and a move towards a return to Japanese militarism. The Chinese have a visceral loathing of Japan and long memories of Japanese atrocities before and during WW2.

The legal position is fairly straight-forward. The Chinese case is so flimsy it would disappear in the faintest breeze.

The islands have never been Chinese. Japan annexed them in 1895, and little interest was shown until the possibility of oil deposits arose in the1970s. And possession is nine points of the law. Taiwan may have a stronger claim but according to the Chinese, Taiwan is a non-country.

The claims could be resolved through arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. One explanation for the confrontation is because of problems at home: both countries are embarked on difficult and possibly unpopular economic and domestic reforms. Foreign entanglements are frequently used by politicians as a diversionary tactic.

Perhaps the real problem is ‘face’. Neither side can afford to lose the case without losing face. So arbitration is unlikely. Do we care? Should we be at all worried about this far-away bout of toy-sabre rattling? Sure!

It only needs a trigger-happy US navy pilot, an accident like the near-collision between the carrier and a  US vessel, or some other flashpoint and the merde could hit the air-conditioning.

Wars have a nasty habit of starting unintentionally. In this particular year it’s as well to remember Sarajevo.

Robin Mitchinson is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former barrister, he is an international public management specialist with almost two decades of experience in institutional development, decentralisation and democratisation processes. He has advised governments and major international institutions across the world

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