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China, Japan, and the U.S.—Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

A ChinaFile Conversation

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's whirlwind tour of China this week saw a tense exchange with his Chinese counterpart, Chang Wanquan, over the intention behind America's "pivot" to Asia, followed by a more measured back-and-forth with President Xi Jinping. Reactions to the visit have run the gamut, from fearful—that the U.S. is not ready for an unlikely but possible Chinese invasion of Japan—to reassuring, that China's leaders are not being swayed by a nationful of "raging nationalists." We asked contributors to assess, essentially, how great are the risks in current relations between China, Japan and the United States?—The Editors

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The U.S.-China relationship has a way of providing something for everyone, and on this score Secretary Hagel’s visit to Beijing this week met all expectations.

Proponents of the concept of a “new model of major country relations” could come away seeing the visit as an exemplar of win-win engagement given the spate of concrete agreements to deepen bilateral dialogue and military-to-military cooperation.

Antithetically, those predisposed to view China’s rise in competitive terms could point to the fact that substantive discussions devolved into literal finger wagging as the issues plaguing the “new” relationship looked a whole lot like those that used to trouble the “old” relationship.

So what do these contradictory accounts of the health of mil-mil relations between the United States and China mean for the management of increasingly tense maritime and sovereignty disputes in East Asia? My view is: hopefully, not much.

China’s policy to date—exemplified by Defense Minister Chang’s remarks at a joint press conference with Hagel—has sought to put the onus on the United States to rein in Japan and the Philippines, which Beijing views as America’s emboldened and adventurous allies, while meanwhile trying to prop up U.S.-China ties as more consequential and important than America’s other relations in the region. This approach neatly places the United States as both the source of and the cure for instability in maritime Asia.

But, if anything, China’s leaders learned this week that its “new model” of relations with Washington actually may backfire in this regard. The United States is not going to temper its alliance commitments for the sake of advancing Chinese sovereignty claims. Instead, the implicit message in Hagel’s remarks in Beijing was that China is going to have to take responsibility for its own actions.

In that sense, Hagel sent the profoundly important signal that Beijing should not believe that cozying up to the United States will somehow absolve China of compromise and moderation. In stark contrast, Beijing’s ability to work more productively with its neighbors (who also happen to be U.S. allies) will be a litmus test for its own commitment to building positive ties with Washington.

Much to Beijing’s disappointment, if you want to know if cooler heads will prevail, you’ll have to look at intra-Asian diplomacy, regardless of whether the United States and China successfully forge a “new model” of military relations.

The strategic risks today between America, Japan and China are very real, because the stakes for each country are very high, and the scope for misunderstanding is very great. To see that we must look behind the day-to-day diplomacy of the kind we saw last week and look at what drives the players.

First, the stakes. Needless to say, none of the players really cares about the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands themselves. For Tokyo, the dispute is all about Japan’s ability to avoid being subordinated to China’s growing power, and the credibility of the United States alliance to help prevent that. For Washington, it is all about the preservation of America’s role as the arbiter of regional order and the preponderant maritime power in Asia. For Beijing, it is all about asserting a new and bigger role for China in Asia, creating a new regional order in which China is at least America’s equal—a new model of great power relations.

This makes both Japan’s and China’s conduct quite clear. China is using the dispute to demonstrate that it is now strong enough to compel Japan to make concessions in a way that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, and to erode Japan’s confidence in U.S. support. Japan is determined to resist any concessions to China, to show that it remains strong enough, with U.S. help, to resist China’s pressure.

This means that both Japan and China have an interest in seeing America face a binary choice between supporting Japan and stepping back from confrontation with China. Tokyo wants Washington to prove unambiguously that it will not sacrifice Japanese interests in order to avoid a rift with Beijing. Beijing wants to show Japan—and the rest of Asia—that America is no longer willing to defend their interests against China’s growing power.

Of course Washington wants to avoid that choice, and it seems to think it can. In Washington, D.C., they seem to assume that if shots are fired, China would back down rather than confront America militarily. If that’s true, America would not have to choose between fighting China and abandoning Japan.

But this is where the risk of misunderstanding comes into play. Everything about Beijing’s conduct suggests that it expects America to step back rather than confront China on Japan’s behalf in the East China Sea, just as it stepped back over Scarborough Shoals in 2012. Of course it doesn’t want a war with America, any more than America wants one with China. But Beijing thinks it can achieve China's aims without one, just as America does. And no one can assume that, if they are both proved wrong, Beijing would blink before Washington. The stakes for China are just as high as they are for America.

There are three rules to writing a novel, the great British novelist W. Somerset Maugham reportedly said—before adding that, “unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Similarly, there are three questions one should be asking about the Senkakus, the islands that are the most worrying flashpoint in Sino-Japanese relations. Will the Chinese attempt to take the Senkakus by force? If they do so, will the United States get involved, risking a war with China in the process? And if the United States does so, will it win?

The second question, at least, is more knowable than Maugham’s three rules. While it’s impossible to predict with certainty the outcome of a war, a U.S.-Japan alliance would almost certainly be able to defend the Senkakus, or snatch them back if they were taken. “If we were directed to take the Senkakus, could we?” the top Marine in Japan, Gen. John Wissler mused on April 11, a few days after Hagel’s visit. “Yes.”

The answer to the first and third question, however, are impossible to determine, as they will almost certainly hinge on the real time decision-making of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama (or possibly his successor). Understanding the assurances, brinkmanship and bluster that characterize the debate are important. But the most important barometer on the future of the Senkakus is (the near impossible to obtain) insight into how those two men make decisions, and a gauge on how worried they are about any of the three players plans or intentions.

Let me pick up on Isaac’s first question, “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Iain Johnston and I recently analyzed data on the frequency of Chinese Coast Guard patrols within the twelve nautical mile territorial waters of the islands. Since September 2012, China has used these patrols to challenge Japan’s sovereignty and administration of these disputed rocks.

For the past six months, however, China has reduced significantly the frequency of patrols it conducts within the island’s territorial waters. Before October 2013, it conducted a patrol roughly once per week, on average. Since then, it has conducted a patrol once every two weeks. In sum, the rate of patrols has dropped by half—and is statistically significant.

The reduced frequency of these patrols is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as Iain and I suggested, China may be signaling limits on its willingness to escalate, at least for now. Second, by reducing the number of patrols, China is also reducing the opportunities for an accident or incident to occur between Chinese and Japanese ships. Such an event, especially if it involved fatalities, could spark a much more intense crisis and greater incentives to use force on both sides.

Turning to Isaac’s question, the reduction in the frequency of these patrols is inconsistent with an escalation of pressure that might culminate in a decision by China to use force. Instead, China appears to have adopted a long-term view of dispute that does not involve taking them by force. Last summer, for example, a meeting of prominent Chinese government analysts concluded that China should “avoid an incident that sparks a war” over the islands. They also assessed that the dispute would persist for a long time to come and that it was therefore urgent to reduce the possibility and risk of a collision at sea.

Finally, a broader point. If China seized islands by force, they would be nearly impossible to defend from a counter-attack, as Gen. John Wissler noted; Moreover, a counter-attack to retake the islands would risk a much wider war, which China as well as the United States and Japan want to avoid.China’s leaders have quite likely anticipated such a scenario, which explains the emphasis on a long-term effort to challenge Japan’s control of the islands and surrounding waters with its coast guard and not its naval forces.