War in the Western Pacific? Not So Fast
By Saad Asad
This week the Economist published an overly-alarmist warning of potential conflict between China and Japan, which are currently competing over the control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Although China’s actions may seem more hostile recently, the situation is a far cry from war.
Arguing that China’s anti-Japan rhetoric has grown increasingly more hostile, the Economist points to selections from two Chinese newspapers, China Daily and the Global Times. Although Chinese media is heavily regulated, we should be wary of conflating editorial opinions with official government policy. The Global Times is an overtly nationalist publication, and would still call for war had Japan ceded the islands to China. Admittedly, the China Daily is a more mainstream, albeit conservative, newspaper, but in selecting these two editorials, the Economist is forcing a narrative. In contrast to these two papers, Xinhua, the official press agency of the government, recently argued that “negotiation should be the way out of the rift” between the two countries.
Next, it seems the Economist is placing most of the blame for increased tensions on China. But the crisis ultimately stems from Japan’s decision to claim the islands in the first place. Though initially at risk of falling into the hands of Tokyo’s ultra-nationalist governor, the Japanese government’s decision to make the islands into a national initiative only escalated the situation. For the past few decades, China seemed willing to leave the islands’ status quo in limbo, but Japan forced the issue.
In fact, Japan has not stepped back in an attempt to de-escalate tensions with China. China did move surveillance vessels near the island, but this is hardly different from what the United States does to China. In response to acts like this and the Chinese patrol plane that buzzed by, Japan has readied its F-15 fighter jets and considered stationing them closer to the islands.
Viewed from the Chinese lens, Japan can easily be seen as the aggressor. From asserting control over the island, readying its military, increasing military spending, and spreading its influence to China’s neighbors to the south, Japan could arguably be seen as attempting to contain China. This is not to say that China has been pacifistic in their behavior, but the blame cannot fully be laid upon China’s feet.
Moreover, it is misleading to compare rising China of today to rising Japan of yesteryear, as the Economist does. China is not attempting to claim swathes of inhabited territory across an entire continent. The most notable existing claims are to a few islets it once owned (Diaoyu/Senkaku), and stronger control over the South China Sea.
It is also alarmist to fear China’s rise, as the Economist would also like us to do. Its economy is largely dependent on exports, and the government has accepted the neoliberal world order devised by the IMF and the World Bank. China would have to risk its modernization efforts in going to war, and shows no signs of forsaking prosperity. The PRC has consistently spent 2 percent of its GDP on the military, never deciding to forego civilian production for increased defense spending like the USSR did.
Western pundits must begin to accept China as a rational actor who will not go to war over a few rocks. China’s rhetoric may be bombastic and we may not like the idea of a nondemocratic world power, but China is here to stay, and is not as fearsome as Chinese nationalists would like us to believe.