The Asian Cold War

China and Japan's island spat is much more than a battle over a bunch of uninhabited rocks. And it won't be ending anytime soon.

The roiling dispute over a remote set of rocks in the East China Sea, known to the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and to the Chinese as the Diaoyus, is more than a mere diplomatic spat between two of the world's largest economies. It has stripped away the thin veneer of cooperation between the two Asian giants that most observers assumed would ripen as the two countries became increasingly economically intertwined. It also serves as yet another reminder of just how potent territorial disputes remain in Asia and how little trust there is between countries where the wounds of previous conflicts are still fresh. Although the probability of actual conflict between China and Japan over the Senkakus is negligible, the current crisis is the herald of a new cold war that will persist for years, if not decades. The result will be an Asia that remains fragmented, unable to overcome the baggage of the past, and one in which the specter of accidental conflict is ever present.

This is not how Asia's most important tandem was supposed to turn out. Perhaps even without the conscious understanding of both countries' leaders, the two became ever more economically interdependent once China embarked on its market liberalization and reform period in the late 1970s. Japanese investment in China reached $6.5 billion in 2005, despite poor diplomatic relations, leading a senior official of the Japan External Trade Organization to claim that Japan and China's economic relationship is sufficiently compelling and mature to overcome occasional political flare-ups.

Such optimism is the same that propelled English politician and journalist Norman Angell to claim in 1909 that economic integration among the European countries was such as to make war between them impossible. Angell was proved tragically wrong just five years later, and the Japanese trade official's confidence from 2005 must similarly be seen in a more sober light in the recent wake of massive anti-Japanese protests that grew so violent that the Chinese government had to shut them down. The danger, clearly, is that politics will trump economics in the new Asian cold war.

The reverberations from the latest clash over the Senkakus continue to widen. Ever since Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's government announced in September that it was buying three of the five islands from their private Japanese owner, anti-Japanese protests have rocked China. The danger was great enough to force Honda and Toyota to suspend manufacturing operations inside China, and the Aeon department store chain closed its stores. (The three companies have since resumed operations.) All Nippon Airways announced in late September that 40,000 seats on China-Japan flights have been canceled, despite the upcoming Chinese holiday that usually draws thousands of tourists to Japan.

As the economic fallout became clearer and as Chinese commentators called openly for war with Japan, Noda doubled down on his rhetoric, publicly refusing to entertain the idea of compromise after Yang Jiechi, China's foreign minister, claimed the islands were "sacred territory." The war of words seemed for a while likely to become an actual shooting war, as up to 70 maritime patrol vessels and coast guard ships from both counties tensely confronted each other in the waters off the Senkakus.

How much worse will the crisis get, and what can be done to defuse tensions? There are tentative signs that leaders are trying to cool things down. On Oct. 1, Noda reshuffled his cabinet, giving a post to former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, who has close ties with Beijing. The Chinese leadership, for its part, appears to be forestalling further public protests.

Yet even as each side continues to harden its rhetoric, Noda made a departure last week from the normal pattern of contentious dispute with China. The prime minister bluntly warned Beijing that it had more to lose than Japan from a continued conflict or war, and he prophesied that foreign investors would be scared away from a China that is seen as a bullying threat to its neighbors. The statement came on the heels of nine out of 10 months of decline in foreign direct investment in China, darkening an already dim economic picture.

Noda's threat might provide leaders in Beijing with an excuse to try to climb down from the position they've taken on the Senkakus. With the leadership transition scheduled for November already upended by the expulsion of Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai from the Chinese Communist Party and the mysterious disappearance of heir apparent Xi Jinping in early September, further uncertainty and instability is the last thing the leadership needs. Using Japan as a bogeyman to stoke nationalism and let off domestic steam is a time-honored tactic in China, yet the current crisis shows how it can cause a chain reaction that could prove uncontrollable.

So far, no lives have been lost in the waters off the Senkakus or on the streets of Beijing. Yet one casualty, or one miscalculation, and the crisis could indeed become far more serious, plunging the world's second- and third-largest economies into actual conflict. This would harm both economies, destabilize world markets, and force the United States into excruciatingly difficult choices over whether to uphold its mutual defense treaty with Japan and put at risk its entire relationship with China. Yet even absent intervention by the United States, China's numerous maritime disputes with neighbors make it harder to claim that it is the aggrieved party.

Thus, while it seems evident to all outside observers that a shooting war over uninhabited, if strategically placed, islets is not in China's best interests, it may have taken the events of the past few weeks to make this clear to China's beleaguered leadership. Fresh from months of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing could outmaneuver Tokyo by making a grand gesture for stability in Asia and announce it will accept the status quo and no longer protest Japan's administrative control over the islands. Whether that is a pipe dream or not depends on two factors unknowable to those outside the power corridors of Zhongnanhai: how calculating China's leaders actually are, and whether they are ridden by the tiger of Chinese nationalism or ride it themselves.

Whatever course China's leadership chooses, it will continue to believe itself to be wronged and that Japan precipitated this crisis by unilaterally trying to change the islands' status. Japan asserts that its 40 years of administrative control simply reflect its rightful ownership of the islands dating back a century. Shots may be avoided, but the cold war between Beijing and Tokyo is real and on display for all to see. However the current crisis gets resolved, it seems a safe bet that relations will only grow chillier with time.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Reports of al Qaeda's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

The terrorist group may be headless, but its tentacles still pack a mean punch.

Al Qaeda is returning to the shadows. The experiment by al-Shabab, al Qaeda's Somali affiliate, of attempting to govern a broad area in Somalia's south officially came to a close this weekend when its fighters fled from their final stronghold, the port city of Kismayo. Its fate in this regard mirrors that of the jihadi group's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which also saw its more limited experiment in governance draw to a close in the middle of the year. In contrast, the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens suggests the group's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to hone its capabilities.

This isn't just a tale of three different organizations moving in different directions. Rather, al-Shabab and AQAP's failures, along with AQIM's apparent success, are related to the unique weaknesses and strengths of global jihadi efforts: Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been able to control territory at times but have not found much success in doing so. Their rigidity makes them ineffective governors, unable to truly win the sympathies of populations forced to endure their harsh, dystopian brand of Islamic law. Al Qaeda's retreat from governance, however, does not render it irrelevant. The jihadi organization remains comfortable as an insurgent actor, adept at moving in the shadows and carrying out occasional, devastating strikes.

AQIM currently represents the success story in this jihadi triumvirate. After some embarrassing vacillations on the part of President Barack Obama's administration, U.S. government analysts seem to be converging on the idea that al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa was involved in the Benghazi attack. Although it is unclear whether AQIM was the primary perpetrator, U.S. officials have homed in on the group in recent days, exploring ways to counter its growth, most likely through stepped-up training efforts for local partners in counterterrorism efforts, but perhaps including a direct U.S. military response.

A recent Wall Street Journal article provided the most extensive account of why analysts are coming to associate al Qaeda with the attack. Importantly, the article highlights how various al Qaeda franchises and local actors were able to come together and play varied roles in an attack.

The Wall Street Journal article centers on Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad -- who, according to a defense analyst I interviewed, is known by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmad al-Masri -- a militant who had been incarcerated in Egypt prior to the Arab Spring uprisings, which saw many prisons emptied. Ahmad is a locally based militant, and fighters under his command, who may have trained at his camps in the Libyan desert, took part in the Benghazi attack, according to U.S. officials. Ahmad has tried to officially connect with the global jihadi network, even petitioning al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the subject.

Such permission has not been forthcoming, so Western officials refer to his militant organization as the "Jamal Network." Yet though he is not an official part of al Qaeda, the Wall Street Journal reported that officials think that Ahmad received funding through AQAP and "tapped into its system for smuggling fighters," and that AQIM fighters were also present during the Benghazi attack.

Many counterterrorism specialists have argued that we are seeing the "relocalization of jihad," in which regional interests dominate over global agendas. This may be true, especially because revolutionary events in the region provide jihadists with local opportunities they simply did not enjoy previously. Some analysts, however, appear far too eager to declare networks like al Qaeda irrelevant to the counterterrorism picture.

Indeed, in August -- prior to the Benghazi attack -- the Library of Congress's Federal Research Division published an unclassified 50-page report titled "Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile." The report, which unfortunately is not available online, concludes that the Libyan revolution "may have created an environment conducive to jihad and empowered the large and active community of Libyan jihadists," and that both AQIM and al Qaeda's senior leadership have attempted to exploit this environment. If indeed the Benghazi attack is connected to AQIM, the details offered in this report suggest that it was likely the outgrowth of many months of effort to build up a jihadi network in Libya.

Al Qaeda's senior leadership, according to the report, had dispatched high-level operatives to Libya to bolster its network in the country. As of August, the Federal Research Division assessed that though a core network had been created in Libya, it "remains clandestine and refrains from using the al Qaeda name." The report also judged that the network was expanding and had begun operating training camps and undertaking social media campaigns. These initial efforts to establish a network were initially undertaken by al Qaeda's Pakistan-based leadership, but the report also predicted that AQIM would "join hands with the al Qaeda clandestine network in Libya."

Back in August, the majority of analysts writing in the public sphere probably would have disagreed with the report's conclusion. Many thought that al Qaeda had been marginalized, even within the jihadi movement. Today that assessment may be different -- not just because of the Benghazi attack, but also because of additional information that has emerged about the dynamics of jihadism in Libya. Nobody should be surprised, however, that al Qaeda would attempt to keep its growth (or regrowth) hidden from view. Its use of different labels as it established a network in Libya is instructive. It wanted to be off its adversaries' radar during this network's growth phase. Likewise, in both Somalia and Yemen, where al Qaeda's affiliates have recently taken a beating, the terrorist network is going to try to regain strength out of plain sight.

On Oct. 2, African Union peacekeepers were greeted with a bomb blast as they entered Kismayo to take control of the former al-Shabab stronghold. Although there were no casualties, this was al-Shabab's way of saying that, though it no longer controls territory, it is still a force in the country. "This is only an introduction to the forthcoming explosions," the group's spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, said.

Al-Shabab will try to repeat a maneuver that already proved successful once before in Somalia. Back in 2006, an Islamist coalition called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), of which al-Shabab is an offshoot, controlled most of the key strategic points in southern Somalia and had encircled the U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government in the south-central city of Baidoa. The ICU governed according to its strict interpretation of Islamic law. It executed people for watching soccer matches and imposed a number of other draconian restrictions (though wasn't as harsh as al-Shabab would later become). As the year neared its end, many observers expected the ICU to undertake an offensive to wipe out the transitional government's final sanctuary. Instead, however, Ethiopia launched an invasion of Somalia that not only received the approval of the United States, but critical military support as well. Ethiopian troops entered the capital, Mogadishu, on Dec. 28, 2006, and quickly reversed virtually all the ICU's strategic gains throughout the country before the end of January 2007.

The ICU promised an insurgency, and one soon gripped Somalia. Al-Shabab split from the ICU during this period and eventually was able to become the dominant force in the country's south. By early 2011, the situation looked much like it did prior to the Ethiopian invasion. Just as a few Ethiopian troops protected the transitional government in Baidoa in 2006, all that stood between the Somali government and certain death at al-Shabab's hands in 2011 was the protection of an African Union force composed of Ugandan and Burundian troops.

But things have gone poorly for al-Shabab since the group won back control of territory. It completely mishandled the devastating drought that racked the Horn of Africa last year, which deepened into a famine in areas under its control. The group's dogmatic insistence on clamping down on humanitarian organizations, claiming they had a "Christian" agenda, certainly made the crisis deeper. Nor did al-Shabab do itself favors with its heavy-handed tactics during this period.

African Union peacekeepers, joined this time by Kenyan forces, went on an anti-Shabab offensive following the drought. As a result, al-Shabab's experiment in governance seems to be over for the time being as it returns to the role of the insurgent force.

Whether al-Shabab will be able to regain its fighting capabilities is, of course, an open question. There are some promising differences between 2012 and 2007. For one, the Ethiopian role has moved to the background. Of all the countries that might try to occupy Somalia, predominantly Christian Ethiopia has particularly poor prospects, given the historical rivalry between the two countries. It is no coincidence that two of the most towering figures in Somali history, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi and Muhammad Abdille Hassan, both fought against Ethiopia. A second positive factor, frankly, is that al-Shabab has actually had the opportunity to govern. Somalis have tasted its oppressive rule and seen a humanitarian disaster take far too many lives under its watch, and may strongly resist its return to power. Finally, unlike the quick defeat of the ICU in 2006 and 2007, al-Shabab has experienced significant losses over the past several months and may therefore have more difficulty recovering.

But the country's transitional government, on the other hand, does not inspire much hope. It has never been able to govern effectively, and just like in 2007, it is being protected by a foreign army. These two deficits may be sufficient to allow an insurgency to gain strength in Somalia. If one does, its early growth will largely be out of sight -- the occasional bombing or attack on African Union or transitional government forces the only sign that al-Shabab remains a force to be reckoned with.

AQAP did not manage to control and govern territory in Yemen for nearly as long as al-Shabab did in Somalia, nor did it preside over as large a region. As noted Yemen specialist Gregory Johnsen has written, the United States increased its airstrikes in Yemen following Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi's ascension as president in February, and a major offensive from May to June "forced AQAP to abandon overt control of the towns it had captured." Hadi has proved very willing to accept counterterrorism assistance from the United States, including publicly praising drone strikes. Johnsen notes that AQAP seems to be at a crossroads, faced with the choice of returning to what it had been -- a militant group that moved in the shadows -- or trying to reclaim its lost territory and "once again position itself as a governing authority."

It is not yet clear which of these routes AQAP will try to pursue, though there are signs that it is experiencing somewhat of a rebound. In mid-September, for example, gunmen affiliated with AQAP front group Ansar al-Sharia captured an entire security unit in Yemen's al-Bayda governorate. As with the other two groups, AQAP will keep its organization out of public view as much as it can, meaning that much of what we learn about it will be from its militant actions. To that extent, if AQAP did play a role in the Benghazi attack -- even one limited to financing a key perpetrator -- it tells us something new about its expanding regional influence.

The United States must be on alert as these al Qaeda affiliates move into a new phase of their evolution. These groups are done with the business of trying to govern, at least for now, and are back to doing what they do best: operating in the shadows, fighting as insurgents, and engaging in terrorist attacks.