ChinaFile A conversation on tensions among China, Japan, and the United States.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's whirlwind tour of China in early April saw a tense exchange with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan over the United States' pivot to Asia. China would "make no compromise, no concession, no treaty," Chang said, adding, "the Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win." Hagel, for his part, said that the United States was "fully committed" to is treaty obligations with the Philippines and with Japan -- which administers the Senkakus, the disputed islands which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. In the days leading up to U.S. President Barack Obama's late April trip to the region, where is visiting Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia -- and pointedly not China -- there is a worrying amount of strain among China, Japan, and the United States. Are temperatures running so high that China might actually seize the Senkakus by force? Or are these worries overblown?
We asked contributors to assess the risks in relations among China, Japan and the United States.
Ely Ratner Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security
The U.S.-China relationship has a way of providing something for everyone, and on this score Hagel's visit to Beijing 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" one.
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 -- exemplified by 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 the United States' emboldened and adventurous allies, while meanwhile trying to prop up U.S.-China ties as more consequential and important than the United States' 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 from Hagel's visit 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.
Hugh White Professor of Strategic Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Center at the Australian National University.
The strategic risks today between the United States, Japan and China are very real, because the stakes for each country are very high, and the scope for misunderstanding is very great. We must look behind the day-to-day diplomacy of the kind we saw with Hagel's visit 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 preserving the United States' 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 the United States 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, they seem to assume that if shots are fired, China would back down rather than confront the United States militarily. If that's true, the United States 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 the United States to step back rather than confront China on Japan's behalf in the East China Sea, just as it stepped back over Scarborough Shoals, disputed territory in the South China Sea, in 2012. Of course it doesn't want a war with the United States, any more than the United States wants one with China. But Beijing thinks it can achieve China's aims without one, just as United States 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 the United States.
Isaac Stone Fish Asia Editor, Foreign Policy magazine
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 nations' plans or intentions.
GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images