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The Scoop
October 25, 2012

China cannot afford to escalate its territorial dispute with Japan

by
Emma Pike

Guest post by Henry Jackson Society Research Assistant Emma Pike

This morning, Chinese naval ships were spotted once again near the disputed Senkaku islands off the coast of Japan. Ownership of the islands – known in China as Diaoyu – has been under dispute since Japan claimed them in 1895, but Chinese ships have only become a regular feature in the area since the islands were nationalised by Japan last month.

Sino-Japanese tensions have been mounting for some time now. Widespread anti-Japan protests have erupted across China, and Japan’s exports to China have fallen dramatically since the territorial row began, with a 14.1% drop in September compared to the previous year. Japan can ill-afford such a knock to its economy, having lurched from one national disaster to another over the last eighteen months since the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

As well as damaging Japan’s economy, China is also trying to pose a military threat in an effort to get its own way. Recent reports suggest that, in addition to sending ships into Japanese territorial waters, Japan’s defence ministry must now regularly dispatch fighter jets to prevent Chinese warplanes from entering its airspace.

China seems determined to see its quest for ownership of the islands through to a successful resolution. But the reality is that it cannot afford to take this conflict to the next stage.  Engaging warships and fighter planes to lurk on the edges of disputed territory is one thing, but launching them into a military campaign of indefinite length is quite another.

The key consideration for China is that, should it choose to embroil itself in a military dispute with Japan, the consequences would not be localised, and would certainly be felt across the Atlantic as well. In the event of a real military threat, the United States would be obliged to support Japan under the terms of their bilateral treaty. This is likely the reason that the Senkaku debate was not on the agenda in talks last month between China’s leaders and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

China’s leaders know that although they may have the military power to start a war with their neighbour, they certainly do not have the strategic strength to finish a war with their neighbour’s allies. China is currently in command of this situation, but it needs to retreat from the dispute soon, before a conflict develops that it can no longer control.