|The disputed islands, called Senkaku by the Japanese, Diaoyu by Communist China, and Tiaoyutai by Nationalist China (Taiwan). Source: Wikipedia.|
What is going on?
In an article titled "Someone Just Said Something About The Japan-China Conflict That Scared The Crap Out Of Everyone" Henry Blodget of Business Insider gives a chilling explanation in the form of a comment made at a reception at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:
One of the guests, an influential Chinese professional, talked about the simmering conflict between China and Japan over a group of tiny islands in the Pacific.The technical term for this Chinese professional is "idiot." And he was called out on it:
China and Japan, you may recall, each claim ownership of these islands, which are little more than a handful of uninhabited rocks between Japan and Taiwan. Recently, the Japan-China tension around the islands has increased, and has led many analysts, including Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, to worry aloud about the potential for a military conflict.
The Chinese professional at dinner last night did not seem so much worried about a military conflict as convinced that one was inevitable. And not because of any strategic value of the islands themselves (they're basically worthless), but because China and Japan increasingly hate each other.
The Chinese professional mentioned the islands in the context of the recent visit by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine where Japanese killed in Japan's many military conflicts over the centuries are memorialized — including the Japanese leaders responsible for the attacks and atrocities Japan perpetrated in World War 2. A modern-day Japanese leader visiting the Yasukuni Shrine is highly controversial, because it is viewed by Japan's former (and current) enemies as an act of honoring war criminals.
That's certainly the way the Chinese professional at the dinner viewed it.
He used the words "honoring war criminals," to describe Abe's visit to the shrine. And, with contained but obvious anger, he declared this decision "crazy."
He then explained that the general sense in China is that China and Japan have never really settled their World War 2 conflict. Japan and America settled their conflict, he explained, and as a result, the fighting stopped. But China and Japan have never really put the war behind them.
The Chinese professional acknowledged that if China asserted control over the disputed islands by attacking Japan, America would have to stand with Japan. And he acknowledged that China did not want to provoke America.
But then he said that many in China believe that China can accomplish its goals — smacking down Japan, demonstrating its military superiority in the region, and establishing full control over the symbolic islands — with a surgical invasion.
In other words, by sending troops onto the islands and planting the flag.
The Chinese professional suggested that this limited strike could be effected without provoking a broader conflict. The strike would have great symbolic value, demonstrating to China, Japan, and the rest of the world who was boss. But it would not be so egregious a move that it would force America and Japan to respond militarily and thus lead to a major war.
Well, when the Chinese professional finished speaking, there was stunned silence around the table.
The assembled CEOs, investors, executives, and journalists stared quietly at the Chinese professional. Then one of them, a businessman, reached for the microphone.Interesting word choice, "deserved." Not sure if it was Blodget's or the Chinese professional's. Even less sure what it means.
"Do you realize that this is absolutely crazy?" the businessman asked.
"Do you realize that this is how wars start?"
"Do you realize that those islands are worthless pieces of rock... and you're seriously suggesting that they're worth provoking a global military conflict over?"
The Chinese professional said that, yes, he realized that. But then, with conviction that further startled everyone, he said that the islands' value was symbolic and that their symbolism was extremely important.
Challenged again, the Chinese professional distanced himself from his earlier remarks, saying that he might be "sensationalizing" the issue and that he, personally, was not in favor of a war with Japan. But he still seemed certain that one was deserved.
But his thinking is idiotic, to put it mildly. Let's assume that China does pull off this "surgical invasion," that they land troops on the islands, plant their flag, and then leave.
What happens after that?
I'll tell you what happens: Japan lands their own troops on the islands, removes the Chinese flag, and plants their own.
And we're back at Square One -- except the precedent of use of military force to assert sovereignty over the islands will have been set. And you will have the stupidly named People's Liberation Army Navy (though some reports have said the Chinese have finally realized the stupidity of the name and changed it to the "People's Liberation Navy") and the awkwardly named Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ("Imperial Japanese Navy" or Nihon Teikoku Kaigun, regardless of the bad history, is actually far cooler) will be hanging around the islands.
And when was the last time Chinese and Japanese forces hung around each other peacefully? May I suggest 1937?
Which brings me to an interview Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times had with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Rachman tweeted that Abe told him "China and Japan now are in a 'similar situation' to UK and Germany before 1914."
That's not actually true. A far better analogy would be US and Japan before 1937, but obviously Abe can't say that, as it would be admitting the Japanese were the bad guys in World War II.
But a 1937 analogy very much is true. In 1937 Imperial Japanese Army troops of the Kwantung Army stationed in Japanese-occupied Manchuria were across the Marco Polo Bridge from Nationalist Chinese troops on the other side. As usual, Imperial Japan was doing some katana-rattling in the form of maneuvers. On the night of July 7, 1937, during these nighttime maneuvers, someone opened fire. To this day no one is sure who -- arrogant Japanese, panicked Chinese nationalists, or devious Chinese communists hoping to provoke their two foes into fighting each other. Whatever the party, it was the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a war that exposed the sheer barbarism and brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army soldier in such incidents as the Rape of Nanking. It was during this time that Japanese navy bombers attacked and sank the US gunboat Panay in the Yangtze upriver from Nanking. The attack was unintentional inasmuch as the navy pilots and their commanding officers did not know they were attacking an American target -- they had apparently been deceived by the army into making the attack. Only a quick apology and some dollar-and-yen diplomacy averted a US-Japan war in 1937.
Now, like 1937, we have an aggressive fascist power in the Chinese Communists (who are communist in name only these days). We have an arrogant leadership, this time in the Chinese Communists, with a sense of entitlement and a basket full of grievances, both real and imagined. We have in the Chinese a country that has taken to bullying its neighbors. Remember that these islands are by no means the only ones China is trying to gain by intimidation. The Spratlys come to mind.
And, now, we have an admission that the Chinese, like the Japanese before World War II, are not basing their actions on a rational assessment of self-interest but on emotion and ego. This idea of a "surgical invasion" that supposedly would not provoke a response is a classic self-delusion.
And wars based on national emotion and national ego are often the most intractable, the most devastating of wars. See World War II in Europe and the Second Punic War for examples.
Hang on. This is going to be a bumpy ride.