Issues of war and peace in Northeast Asia are acquiring not only regional but global significance too.
Should a war break out in East Asia, it is likely to be waged mainly at sea.
This is conditioned by the geography of the region, where the main players are separated from each other by large expanses of sea.
A large-scale military action on the ground, say in Europe, the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula, could result in a huge loss of life and a lot of material damage, forcing politicians to exercise more caution.
Whereas in the ocean, where there is no human life for hundreds of miles, these risks are much lower, which may reduce the threshold for taking the decision to go to war.
In Northeast Asia, the main conflict potential is centred in the East China Sea, with China and Japan as the main antagonists.
The object of their controversy is sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China) and demarcation of exclusive economic zones.
Symptoms of tension
Alarming symptoms, showing a dangerous rise in tensions, are evident.
In 2012, China showed some strong reaction to the Japanese government’s decision to nationalise the Senkaku Islands (by buying them from a private owner).
Chinese aircraft and ships enter the Japanese jurisdiction zone in the disputed area increasingly more often.
In Japan too there has been a shift in the public sentiment towards a tougher position in relation to China.
This was demonstrated by the parliamentary election in December 2012. One of the pre-election proposals of Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (not yet implemented) is to ensure constant presence of Japanese officials and coastal guards on the Senkaku Islands.
The Japanese government has already announced an increase in military spending in 2013, the first rise in the defence budget in 11 years.
Which is fully in line with Abe’s pre-election promises to build up military might in order to counter “the Chinese threat”.
Symbolism of conflict
Some analysts believe that a war in the East China Sea, which just a few years ago seemed almost impossible, may now become a reality.
The root of the conflict lies not in the military strategic importance of those small uninhabited islands or in the East China Sea oil and reserves.
The dispute over Senkaku has developed a symbolic meaning, having become a matter of principle between a rising and becoming increasingly nationalist China on the one hand, and Japan, which is trying to maintain its weakening positions, on the other.
Will the USA get involved?
The US administration has more than once stated that in the issue of sovereignty over Senkaku, it does not support either side in the dispute but at the same time it recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control over the islands.
Therefore, this territory is covered by the US-Japanese security treaty (1, 2).
At the same time it is worth noting that the Americans have never stated their readiness to intervene and use military force on the side of its Japanese ally.
Washington is well aware of the risks resulting from the antagonism between Japan and China on the one hand, and from America’s ally obligations to Japan, on the other.
It if for that reason that the US approach to the dispute over the Senkaku Islands is becoming somewhat similar to the policy of “strategic ambiguity” that America has for a long time been pursuing in relation to the “Taiwan issue”.
Some influential American analysts maintain that if Tokyo unleashes a crisis, the USA may refuse to act on Japan’s side in a military conflict with China.
And yet, despite the above reservations, the USA would most probably render military assistance to Japan in the event of a crisis in the East China Sea, if Tokyo finds itself unable to cope with it independently. However, this forecast is valid only for the short- and medium-term, while America retains a clear military superiority over China in the west Pacific.
Other players’ positions
What would other Northeast Asian countries do in the event of a military conflict between China and Japan?
South Korea would find itself in a rather difficult situation. On the one hand, the Koreans have issues with the Japanese, which are in many ways similar to China’s issues.
On the other hand, Seoul is in a military-political alliance with the USA. Therefore the Republic of Korea would probably choose an official position of neutrality, although many people in that country would want Tokyo to be defeated.
North Korea, albeit an ally to China, is unlikely to get involved in the conflict either. The DPRK’s immediate interests are in no way connected to the East China Sea, and Pyongyang does not have sufficient military capability to have a serious effect on the outcome of the conflict.
Taipei, like Beijing, considers the disputed islands to be Chinese territory. However, it is almost impossible to imagine that, for the sake of nominal patriotism, Taiwan would join a war against the main guarantors of its de-facto independence, the USA and Japan. Military action against mainland China is also out of the question.