War with China is not inevitable, so tread carefully

The Japan Times, 3 April 2013

There are dangers for the United States and Japan in underestimating or confronting China. The Abe government’s interest in changing the postwar Japanese Constitution threatens relations not only with China but also with the U.S.

Despite the optimists, military conflict in the region would be uncontainable. Any form of confrontation involving China would likely spiral out of control and engulf the entire region, if not the world.

Since the Liberal Democratic Party was last in power, the world has profoundly changed. The first noticeable change is that the U.S. is in serious, perhaps irretrievable trouble. Much has been said about how the Chinese giant awoke and arose, but much less has been said about what happens when the U.S. giant stumbles and falls.

The decline of the U.S. has sent shock waves around the world, and even America’s enemies shudder. The cumulative effects of poor financial decisions, social fragmentation, national debt and overseas conflict have taken their toll, injecting a profound and deleterious sense of uncertainty.

The second noticeable change is the immaturity of Chinese ambition. China has risen during a time of peace. U.S.-sanctioned free trade underpinned this success. Instead, Beijing talks of islands, oceans, and territories in terms of rights to ownership. This reflects an immature China that coexists alongside a confident, global-oriented China. Politically, Chinese leadership is dysfunctional.

China has effectively dominated the global economy, but it seems obsessed with a few islands of minimal value in the East and South China Seas.

Both the uncertain path ahead for the U.S. and the immature ambitions of China threaten the future of Japan. Changing the Constitution would inject further uncertainty into an already tense region.

Article 9 of Japan’s postwar Constitution is both an anachronism and a sincere affirmation of national pacifism. Changing Article 9 to mirror contemporary realities is driven by a view to return Japan to the status of a “normal country.”

But what is “normal?” Japan certainly isn’t. The pacifism of the Constitution is unique and reflects the horrors and tragedies of the Pacific War.

Even with an altered constitution, Japan remains an essentially “occupied” country in the sense that it appears unable to make major decisions on its future without deference to the U.S. on the one hand and fear of China on the other.

The nature of this occupation goes beyond the strategic presence of the U.S. military. “Operation Tomodachi” following the 2011 tsunami reflected this unusual relationship between Japan and the U.S. The unfolding catastrophe provoked genuine goodwill, sympathy and concern for the Japanese on the part of the U.S. forces stationed in Japan. Apparently U.S. forces did not wait for Japanese approval to undertake rescue missions.

It is important to note and affirm this genuine affection. While Japan is still at one level “occupied” by a foreign power, it is difficult to escape the view that the long history of U.S. bases in Japan has led to a mutually beneficial relationship. This unusual relationship is proof that the U.S. has no intention of leaving Japan. The U.S. knows full well that in the event of Chinese aggression over territorial claims, its bases in Japan could be targeted. If this occurs, it is doubtful containment is relevant.

It is well known that Japan has a sophisticated, well-equipped, well-staffed and competent national military called the Self-Defense Force. At the same time, the sentiment and the assumptions underlying Article 9 are still valid, not least from an interpretation of history. History needs to be affirmed. There is no reason why the reality of defense and the idealism of peace need not coexist.

Sadly it may be too late to prevent the outbreak of conflict involving China and some of its neighbors. Poor leadership in Beijing has led to a number of tense territorial claims. Chinese economic success has inspired jealousy in the region and overconfidence within China. Money isn’t everything.

Political elites may be capable of organizing anti-Japan riots but have failed to manage the politics of global ambition.

That said, Washington and Tokyo are not without blame, with China policy marginalized by pressing domestic problems. Much more could have been done to dampen enthusiasm for a confrontation, and historians no doubt will write much about the path to conflict.

History reminds us that the origins of the Pacific War included the attempted containment of Japan through an oil and steel embargo a few months before Pearl Harbor. Containment doesn’t work. It would be tragic if the U.S. and Japan go down a similar path with China by pushing Beijing into a corner.

It is far better to urge cooperation with China rather than pursue a regional arms race that can only lead to conflict.

Michael Sutton, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the WTO Research Center in Tokyo (eastasiandemography@gmail.com).