Argument

A Line in the Sea

Is Japan’s new leader going to pick a fight with China?

SHANGHAI, China - On Sunday, Japan headed to the polls to return the Liberal Democratic Party to power and select former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as the man to steer the country out of its nearly quarter-century long financial crisis.

But Abe might face just as serious a challenge dealing with the country's security crisis with China. On Thursday, just three days before the election, the Japanese government responded to a Chinese propeller plane flying over what Japan considers its own airspace by sending eight F-15 fighter planes in response. Ominously, it's the first time a Chinese aircraft has intruded into Japanese airspace. The incident is just the latest in the two countries' ongoing showdown over who owns the Senkakus (the islands over which the Chinese plane was flying, known in China as the Diaoyu) that threatens to destroy their bilateral relationship and possibly even send them to war. Prime Minister-to be Abe shows no sign of backing down over the issue, and reiterated the day after the election that the Senkakus are indisputably Japanese territory.

In Shanghai, China's economic center, discussion about Japan focuses on just how much Tokyo might be willing to risk trade between the two countries over the uninhabited islands. When he takes over next week, Abe needs to understand that China's new leader Xi Jinping has apparently unanimous backing domestically, and can patiently continue to chip away at Japan's administrative control over the Senkakus without fear of having to settle the issue anytime soon. That means Tokyo will have to counter with an equally patient, yet credible strategy.

After a seemingly smooth power transfer in November, Xi leads China's Communist Party and is slated to take over government positions next year. Now the ruler of one of the world's most powerful countries, Xi has unfortunately given little indication of his views on international affairs, other than repeating bromides about China's peaceful rise and asserting that it is "absolutely not a threat" to its neighbors. In a recent meeting with foreign experts, he was quoted as saying that China "will not seek hegemony or expansionism." Yet on specific issues, such as territorial disputes like the Senkakus, Xi has been quiet.

Ties between the two Asian giants remain central to the region's economic prosperity and political stability. In 2011, China and Japan did nearly $340 billion in bilateral trade, largely in electronics, machinery, and foodstuffs, as well as component parts for assembly in China. Millions of Chinese are employed by Japanese firms on the mainland. In June 2012, the two countries introduced a direct yen-yuan exchange mechanism, allowing them to bypass the U.S. dollar and reduce costs of financial transactions.

Yet at the same time, each is also attempting to shore up its own economic position, Japan by flirting with the idea of joining negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade area, and China by exploring ways for the yuan to play a larger global financial role. Politically, each continues to jockey for more international prestige and influence, whether through multilateral organizations or direct ties with other countries.

Politics, however, has put economic ties between the world's second and third largest economies at risk. Major exporters, such as Toyota, have seen sales decline by up to half during the autumn after weeks of demonstrations in China over the Senkakus. Japan's decision this summer to buy several of the privately owned islands may have been a move to forestall Tokyo's then-governor Ishihara Shintaro from doing the same thing, but it ruptured relations with Beijing, unleashed a firestorm of anti-Japanese protests throughout China, and set off an ongoing maritime face-off in the waters around the islands. Chinese generals and commentators have been reported urging the country to prepare for combat, and Western observers, including U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have raised concerns that conflict could break out between the two historical rivals.

Like Abe, Xi is unlikely to radically alter Beijing's stance on the islands, which is that they have always been China's territory "historically and legally," according to an October press briefing by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun. Yet he will have to balance a firm diplomatic line with far harsher semi-official stances that serve to inflame Chinese nationalism. For example, Lt. Gen. Ren Haiquan, at meeting of senior military officials from 16 countries in Australia in November, stated that the dispute could cause war with Japan, which he reminded his listeners was once a "fascist" nation that attacked Australia. The hawkish Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan even recommended that rather than negotiating with Japanese, China should send hundreds of maritime vessels to the disputed area to conduct maritime guerrilla warfare. So far, Xi has not specifically repudiated such statements, but neither has he indicated that he intends to reduce the pressure on Japan. Chinese vessels continue regularly to enter the waters around the Senkakus, triggering Japanese Coast Guard responses.

Apart from the rhetoric from various levels of the Chinese government, these near-daily deployments of Chinese ships show that Beijing is not yet considering a reduction in its presence, which might be interpreted as backing down on its claims. Tokyo considers these intrusions near its waters extremely provocative, and believes that the Chinese are attempting to redefine the perception of "administrative control" over the islands that underlies the U.S. security commitment to Japan. In essence, the Japanese government believes Beijing is attempting to show de facto or at least equivalent control over the islands (by claiming to "expel" Japanese ships from the waters around the Senkakus) so as to undercut the U.S. understanding that any territory administratively controlled by Japan falls under Article 5 of the security treaty.

It seems that Xi supports the current policy of challenging Japan's claim, or at a minimum  has not yet proposed an alternative approach that satisfies his co-leaders. Even a diplomatic outreach by Japan's new premier , were it possible, might not result in any deal that Xi could bring back to China's top leadership body, the Standing Committee, particularly if the leadership is confident that China is slowly wearing down Japan's defenses or is prompting a domestic political backlash against Japan's government. This may well be a misreading of Japan's will and strategy, but it at least means the current policy of continually testing Japan will continue.

What China's ultimate policy over the Senkakus and Japan will be may thus be shaped significantly by Xi's relationship with the military. Unlike President Hu Jintao, who for the first two years of his reign had to contend with Jiang Zemin as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the body that manages the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Xi already runs both the party and the military. Also , Xi has some experience with the PLA; he served as the personal secretary to a former defense minister in the early 1980s and held military positions in his provincial assignments in Nanjing, Fujian, and Fuzhou. These experiences may help decrease friction between Xi and the PLA, as should the promotion of senior military officials known to be close to Xi.

Given the PLA's hard-line stance toward Japan, and the expansion of its naval and air activities in the East China Sea, where the Senkakus are located, it seems unlikely that Xi will challenge the military leadership and dramatically change China's security presence near the islands. Rather, he can be expected to support the PLA and expand the scope of its missions in waters that China claims, including the East China Sea, as long as it doesn't appear to be a reckless move that either causes outright conflict or brings in the United States in a far more active manner. Success in keeping the pressure on Japan and appearing in lockstep with the PLA could also protect Xi from any potential rivals who might seek to undermine him through cultivating their own support from the military.

All this augurs poorly for a tamping down of tensions with Japan, even if China's policy of maritime incursions into the Senkakus so far has not resulted in any evidence that Tokyo will abandon its claims.

Unfortunately, there are few positive counterbalances in Sino-Japanese relations to offset the tensions over the Senkakus. Trade between the two nations has fallen due to anti-Japanese protests in China; Japan's consideration of joining the TPP has further alienated China, which feels left out of the negotiations; and there are few joint diplomatic initiatives between the two countries, such as the six-party-talks over North Korea or anything relating to the East Asian Summit, an annual forum attended by leaders of nearly 20 countries. Beijing also continues to try and isolate Japan regionally, as it does to Taiwan, thereby minimizing the only other potential power center in East Asia. Moreover, while Japan will be an important part of China's economic picture for the rest of this decade, Chinese leaders have already calculated that Japan will suffer more from an economic downturn and poor relations than will China, perhaps increasing their willingness to push Japan ever harder on the Senkakus.

There also is not much Japan can do to bolster its position abroad. Any weakness in defending the islands will only embolden China, but Tokyo is also leery of being thrust into the position of "counterbalance" to China, as a senior Philippines officials suggested in early December. Not only does such an idea ignore over a decade of decline in Japan's defense budget, Tokyo will not further endanger trade with Beijing by appearing to become the ringleader of Asian opposition to China. Moreover, these other nations are interested primarily in South China Sea issues, and not Japan's problems further north. This leaves Tokyo with no option other than to rely even more heavily on U.S. support and to ensure that the U.S.-Japan alliance remains the bedrock of security assurance.

This leaves much of the momentum in Sino-Japanese relations in Chinese hands. If there is any respite, it might come from Xi's likely focus on domestic affairs in the first years of his rule. As for Xi, he must be seen as a strong leader after the Bo Xilai debacle this past summer and rumors of continuing splits among the party's top leadership. While he will try to repair Beijing's "smile diplomacy" and not make China an object of fear among its neighbors, what better way to show strength at home and abroad than to adopt the time-honored tactic of standing up to the Japanese?

Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

National Security

Newtown and the Doomsday Preppers

Could survivalism really have played a role in Friday's massacre?

In the wake of a terrible tragedy like Friday's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, most people immediately begin groping for answers.

On Sunday, a family member claimed that Nancy Lanza, mother of 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, owned the guns used in the shooting because she was some manner of survivalist. The reasons Adam Lanza did what he did may well be complex. But if the report proves to be true -- and many, many reports about the Lanzas have not -- it may provide context for his actions.

Survivalism, sometimes referred to as "doomsday prepping" or simply "prepping," is a movement based on the fear that society is on the brink of imminent, or at least foreseeable, collapse and that it's sensible to prepare for that possibility.

"Survivalist" is a very broad category, and it includes a strikingly diverse collection of people, many of whom, it should be emphasized, are perfectly nice and have fears that are simply amplified versions of those that keep mainstream Americans awake at night. There are at least tens of thousands of prepper families in the United States, covering a broad range of practices, most of which are not particularly unreasonable.

Someone who closely followed the preparedness guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control, or FEMA might find themselves the butt of "survivalist" jokes from their friends and family. But those friends would have been grateful to have a prepper friend if they lived in certain parts of the East Coast when Hurricane Sandy struck.

Preppers go beyond the average household's disaster preparedness regime of having a couple flashlights with batteries in them. Their precautions can include everything from keeping a supply of canned goods to stocking generators and building elaborate bunkers. Many preppers also keep guns and a supply of ammunition in anticipation of the breakdown of law and order, as well as for hunting after the local Whole Foods has been abandoned to looters.

Shortly after press reports about Nancy Lanza's alleged survivalism appeared, the American Preppers Network issued a statement, which said: "Our members, and others around the globe who share our philosophy of being prepared in times of emergency, are sickened by this event. We too are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and to associate APN or any legitimate organization that stresses preparing for emergencies with this barbaric act goes against everything we collectively stand for."

Despite this statement, which is generally correct, prepper subculture can go further than intensive or even excessive preparation. Most survivalism is based around fear of a sometimes ambiguous, sometimes specific disaster that is just around the corner, most commonly referred to by preppers as SHTF, short for "shit hits the fan." Because SHTF can be anything from the collapse of the dollar to an electromagnetic pulse detonation to a race war, survivalist tendencies are sometimes -- but not always -- paired with malignant forms of extremism, such as ideological racism, sovereign citizenship, apocalyptic religion, or anti-government beliefs on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, for instance, took part in survivalist subculture in addition to their anti-government ideology, and extensive sections of the white nationalist Web forum Stormfront are dedicated to discussions of SHTF. But survivalism tends to be an add-on to such ideologies, not a fundamental cause.

In addition to ideological entanglements that go beyond its inherent mandate, survivalism itself can lead to dangerous behavior. Most obviously, in the context of the Lanza family, someone who believes the government is on the verge of collapse might stockpile weapons and train his or her children how to use them effectively without taking a full inventory of that child's mental fitness.

While there's not much solid research to be had, anecdotal observations certainly give the impression that there's a higher incidence of mental illness among hardcore preppers than in the general population, and the nature of their beliefs and social networks may create obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. There can be fine lines between reasonable fear, intense fear, and irrational fear, and some preppers subscribe to conspiracy theories that are completely nuts, focused on supposed threats from sinister "chemtrails" to the Illuminati (or both and then some).

For all these reasons, there have been a number of cases where survivalism and violent actions were fellow travelers, aside from the well-documented case of McVeigh. The 1995 Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph, was a survivalist, in addition to being an anti-abortion extremist. In 2004, police broke up an illegal weapons ring centered around several militia and survival groups. And in April of this year, Washington state survivalist Peter Keller killed his wife and daughter and then locked himself into a fortified rural bunker, where he killed himself after a standoff with police.

But a video Keller recorded before his death suggested his actions were not connected with his survivalist beliefs so much as his inability to survive ordinary life. Although his preparations created obvious complications for police trying to apprehend him, his beliefs did not seem to play a role in his murderous acts.

Therein lies the rub. A search of news archives yields hundreds of cases over the last 20 years of less prominent murderers and felons who were said to be survivalists, but the term is often bandied about loosely by police and reporters groping for a simple explanation of inaccessible motives or the possession of sophisticated weaponry.

The extremity of Adam Lanza's crime has created a desperate desire for explanations, and dismissing him as a crazy survivalist -- or the son of a crazy survivalist -- will likely prove irresistible for many people trying to make sense of a senseless act. But the ultimate truth of his motive is not likely to be so simplistic. Survivalism does not justify slaughtering children, although fear of an impending and unbearable apocalypse might move a twisted mind toward such an act.

Additional information will emerge over the coming days, but we may never really know why Lanza killed his mother and so many innocent teachers and children. Understanding the context of his actions may provide useful insights that could prevent future incidents, but gross oversimplifications will only stand in the way.

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images