Sino-Japan relations and the elephant in the sea

by George Hatjoullis

The war of words between (The People’s Republic of) China and Japan is causing some concern. The proximate cause is the disputed jurisdiction over the Senkaku Islands. It is being aggravated by the insistence of Prime minister Abe in visiting a war shrine (located within Japan) that contains the remains of convicted war criminals. China was a victim of war crimes by Japanese soldiers. Could they come to blows and what might then transpire?

If they come blows it would most likely suck in the USA. Japan eschewed military development in return for security relations with the USA. The situation is further complicated by the fact that South Korea, another US security dependency, is also annoyed with Abe’s visits to war shrines. Korea was also a victim of Japan war crimes and has a long-standing animosity towards Japan. Furthermore, North Korea, viewed as a rogue state, is antagonistic towards everyone except perhaps China. The US would be obliged to support S. Korea against N. Korea. It is not difficult to work up scenarios where the USA becomes embroiled in an asian war, which given the US’s NATO links might suck us all in.

China has spent the last 10-15 years investing all over the world. It has invested in ports, railways and mines, in particular. It has been generous with aid in resource rich African countries. It has worked hard and spent heavily on building up good relations with strategically important countries all over the globe. Looked at with a cynical eye one might be forgiven for thinking it has secured its supply lines. A newly emerging but powerful industrial and military complex, it has few natural resources and a very large population to feed. One can see the logic. Perhaps it now feels ready to flex its muscles and test the water. However, what is the objective?

It is unlikely China would go to war with Japan and the USA over the Senkaku Islands or war shrines, whoever is buried. Just south-west of the Senkaku Islands sits the elephant in the sea; Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China has made no secret of its desire to reintegrate Taiwan into the People’s Republic. It may be that the PRC is testing the water to see how an overtly military threat would be received globally. It may also be sending a signal that if it is left to act unhindered vis-à-vis Taiwan it might back off other local disputes. One can not help thinking that the sino-Japan dispute is a distraction from the real prize; Taiwan.