By Dr. Subhash Kapila
China seems to have developed a Compulsive Obsession Disorder of inflicting aggressive brinkmanship against its neighbours on territorial claims dug out and based on antiquity. For the last couple of years this aggressive brinkmanship was pointedly directed in the South China Sea region against its ASEAN neighbours. The present focal point of China’s aggressive brinkmanship stands directed at Japan disputing Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea area.
Brought out in my preceding SAAG Papers was the important distinction between the South China Sea Islands disputes and now the Senkaku Islands disputes was China’s aggressive targeting. In the former China applied political and military coercion against its ASEAN countries neighbours who in limited size and military resources were miniscule against China’s military might.
In the latter case China’s present aggressive brinkmanship is targeted against Japan which is no political or military push-over. Japan’s political and military significance far transcends its geographical size. Except for the lack of a nuclear weapons arsenal, Japan packs a military punch in its high-technology Armed Forces based on self-reliance on advanced technologies based defence production infrastructure.
Further, Japan is joined to the United States in a Mutual Security Alliance including a US Nuclear Umbrella committed to Japan’s security against any nuclear threats. Japan is the lynch-pin of the United States security architecture in East Asia and the United States despite its ‘congagement’ strategy employed against China cannot overlook the stark reality that the first component of the US strategy of ‘congagement’ is ‘containment’ and in that fundamentally it is Japan which plays a premier role.
Against such a contextual strategic background major questions arise on the timing of China’s over-hyping its reactions against Japan on the Senkaku Island issue. After all Japan was in effective control of these islands since1895 and their control was reverted to Japan by the United States in the 1950s along with that of Okinawa. Why has China been so silent for over half a century on these islands sovereignty?
Major questions arise against the on-going state-sponsored violent anti-Japan protests in China and which rose to a feverish pitch till yesterday when mysteriously they were officially called off.
The major questions that come to the fore are (1) Why China chose the present moment to resort to aggressive brinkmanship against Japan? (2) Is China testing the US resolve and commitment to Japan’s security against Chinese provocations and Chinese brinkmanship? (3) Is China’s current aggressive brinkmanship both in the South China Sea against ASEAN nations and now the Senkaku Islands dispute against Japan is impelled by Chinese domestic compulsions?
Strategically, Chinese aggressive brinkmanship against Japan over the Senkaku Islands far transcends the symbolic value of these islands to China. It is China’s strategic readings of the emerging situation which seem to have impelled China for these provocations against Japan. The first major Chinese motive is to react to the US strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and re-balancing of its military postures with the China Threat in mind. In both such US military moves Japan plays a central role.
China may have therefore intended to divert US and Japan’s strategic attention from giving firm shape to the US realignments towards the South, which are basically China-centric and enhance any US military interventions against China in the future, however unlikely.
The second major Chinese motive may have been intended towards forestalling Japan’s domestic demands for change in Japan’s pacifist Constitution, indigenous nuclear deterrence capability and ballistic missile defence.
By raising the bogey of a possible armed conflict over the Senkaku Islands dispute, China hopes it would be able to forestall Japanese domestic demands for improving Japan’s conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities. In the bargain, China seems to be hoping that the sixty five years old aversion to war in the Japanese public psyche would come into play and keep Japan strait-jacketed in pacifism.
China’s testing of United States resolve and commitments to Japan’s security including the nuclear umbrella can only be tested by time and the intensity of China’s military provocations against Japan. Recently the US Defense Secretary was visiting China and in his parleys with his Chinese counterpart attempted to defuse tensions over this dispute. He also offered US mediation over the conflict.
China has always refused mediation in its territorial disputes and would never countenance US mediation on the Senkaku Islands in which the US staunchest military ally in the region is ranged against China.
The United States would be well-advised to focus on political and military contingency plans should China elect to use military force against Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands.
Political and strategic observers of China’s policy formulations do read that China’s prolonged aggressive brinkmanship in East Asia over maritime territorial disputes stand impelled by domestic compulsions in a big way. Firstly, they read that a political power struggle has been underway for some time and coupled with economic discontent and disparities within, these territorial disputes would rekindle nationalism and divert domestic attention.
There is also a bigger debate emerging over the extent of control being exercised by the Chinese PLA military hierarchy over China’s foreign policy formulations. The increasing Chinese aggressive brinkmanship bordering on military provocations and threats of use of military force by China is being ascribed to increasing control of the PLA military hierarchy over China’s foreign policy and strategic formulations.
Concluding, the following major observations need to be offered:
- China is boxing much above its actual military weight when it elects to indulge in a possible military confrontation against Japan over the Senkaku Islands dispute.
- China’s aggressive brinkmanship is likely to push Japan into stronger self-reliant military build-up and postures, stoke Japanese latent nationalism and move Japan unwillingly towards acquiring minimum nuclear deterrence of its own.
- Chinese aggressive brinkmanship would not deter the United States from its strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and re-balancing US military postures in East Asia.
- The United States may have limited itself to political signalling on China’s brinkmanship on the South China Sea disputes but in case of the Chinese spat with Japan underway presently, the United States may be forced to transcend the political boundaries and resort to military signalling too.
- Failure to do so would erode US military credibility in East Asia and the current re-balancing of US Forces in the region. The world would be avidly watching as to how the United States honours its military alliance pledge to Japan as part of the US-Japan Mutual Security Alliance Treaty.
China’s on-going aggressive brinkmanship against Japan reinforces the assertions made in my recent Papers, “China Generates Strategic Polarisation in Asia Pacific” (SAAG Paper No.5127 dated i9 July 2012) and “China is Asia Region’s Predominant Spoiler State’ (SAAG Paper No. 5136 dated 26 July 2012). China cannot be rated globally as a responsible stakeholder in Asian security and at the global level too until it forsakes its propensity to resort to aggressive brinkmanship and threats of force to settle its territorial claims dug up from antiquity.