As the Asia-Pacific Region is increasingly becoming a centre of world politics and economics, gravitational pull inside the Asia-Pacific region is moving to Northeast Asia, where the interests of great powers – China, Japan, the USA, and Russia – meet and clash.
What if the USA gets involved?
As mentioned above, the USA will most probably render military assistance to Japan. An issue of key importance here is what the US intervention into the conflict will look like.
At first, Washington will probably go for a more moderate option and dispatch a “control group” into the area that will refrain from direct intervention but, by its presence alone, will cool the Chinese down a bit.
At the same time, by staging a large-scale drill in the South China Sea, the US Navy will in effect prevent the South China Sea Fleet from entering the Senkaku area, which would be playing into Japan’s hands and would even up the two sides’ chances.
One would think that the Americans themselves would be very interested to assess the potential of China’s People’s Liberation Army without entering into a direct clash with it.
If it turns out that these measures do not work and the Chinese are getting the upper hand, then Washington will have to go for a direct military intervention in order to prevent Japan’s defeat.
This would involve the US Seventh Fleet deployed in Yokosuka, Sasebo and Guam, as well as Andersen Air Force Base (on Guam).
Given their current unconditional strategic arms superiority over China, the Americans may resort to a tough demonstrative action, including cruise missile and air strikes at airfields and naval bases.
Today’s potential of the Chinese Air Force and Navy would clearly not be enough to counter a joint action by the US and Japanese forces.
The US Navy and Air Force possess enormous combat experience; Japanese hardware is of the state standard as its US equivalents; the two countries hold joint military drills on a regular basis. They will therefore have no problems coordinating their actions on the battleground.
Moreover, the USA is in a position to introduce politico-diplomatic and, most importantly, economic sanctions on China, up to a full embargo on trade and a sea blockade.
Given that China’s economy still very much depends on trade with the USA, especially on oil and gas supplies by sea, an economic blockade could become a very effective instrument of influence.
Yet, taking this step would perhaps be more difficult for the Americans than engaging in a military conflict with China.
Given China’s significance for the global economy and for the USA, a trade embargo may with time turn into a double-edged sword.
It is extremely difficult to speculate on the prospects of a Japanese-Chinese conflict (with possible US involvement), say, in 10 or 15 years’ time. By that time, China will double its military potential (both in terms of quantity and quality).
Japan will probably remain in the same position militarily.
The USA will, most probably, somewhat improve its military potential in the west Pacific, but due to budget constraints it will find it difficult to boost its military capabilities.
Thus in the long-term, the balance of power will clearly change in China’s favour.
What will it all end in?
Although there may be an infinite number of possible outcomes of the conflict, we shall focus on five base scenarios.
1. China‘s defeat and onset of bipolar confrontation. A defeat will result in an even greater rise in mass nationalism as well as anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiments in the People’s Republic of China. Seeking revenge, China will start preparing for a new war. International order in the Asia-Pacific region will take the form of a confrontational bipolar system (China against the bloc of the USA, Japan and its allies), balancing on the verge of a war.
2. China‘s defeat and regime change. This scenario is similar to what happened to Argentina after its defeat in the Falklands war. A crushing military defeat will serve as a catalyst for mass unrest aimed against the Communist Party of China, which will result in a radical transformation of the political regime and will bring to power new political forces that adhere to more democratic, albeit perhaps no less nationalistic, views.
3. A battling draw. Japan will retain control over the disputed islands, but the Chinese Navy and Air Force will do considerable damage to the joint US-Japanese force, at the same time managing to avoid catastrophic losses. This would allow each side to claim victory. After which, most likely, there will be a further consolidation of confrontational bipolarity in the Asia-Pacific region and both sides will start preparing for a new clash.
4. China‘s victory and Japan’s defeat. This option could materialise if the USA refuses to give any substantial military support to Japan. Japan will suffer a defeat and China will take over control over the islands.
After which three options are possible.
First. The defeat will further fuel nationalistic and revanchist sentiments in Japan. Tokyo will withdraw from its alliance with the USA, which has proven to be useless; will decide to free itself of self-imposed military restrictions, up to perhaps creating nuclear weapons of its own; and will start preparing for a lengthy and fierce confrontation with China. A tripolar system will emerge in the Asia-Pacific region, with China, the USA and Japan acting as the three poles.
Second. The defeat will convince the Japanese of the futility of further confrontation. Like once the defeat in the Pacific War with the USA forced Tokyo to recognize Washington’s supremacy, Japan will now recognize Beijing as its new suzerain and will break away from the USA. Some members of the Japanese elite are already speaking in favour of joining the orbit of China’s strategic influence. A defeat in a war could, paradoxically, give a boost to these sentiments, showing the futility of resisting China’s growing might.
Third. Having suffered the shock of defeat, Japan will lose whatever was left of its belief in one’s strength and will in effect turn into a US protectorate. This will, most likely, contribute to a tough “Beijing vs. Washington” bipolarity in the Asia-Pacific region, similar to the first scenario.
5. Security community. The conflict, which has done enormous material damage to all its participants, will turn out to be a transformative experience for them, irrespective of who has claimed military victory in it.
Tokyo and Washington will realize that China has become a truly powerful state and is capable of doing unacceptable damage to the enemy, even if it does not use its military capability in full.
Beijing will realise that one should not underestimate Japan’s resolve (supported by the USA) to defend its national interests.
Both sides will realise that the conflict could have easily escalated, including to a nuclear stage, which would have put their very existence into question.
The crisis in the East China Sea would serve as a turning point, like the Cuban missile crisis was between the USA and the USSR, and will speed up the emergence of a peaceful “security community” in the region.
Conclusions for Russia
Due to its relative remoteness from Russian territory, the conflict would not present an immediate military threat to Russia.
However Moscow will inevitably feel the consequences of the war in the East China Sea, especially in the economy.
The break-up, albeit a temporary one, of trade and financial ties between China and Japan, between China and the USA, and a possible US blockade of China’s sea routes may well trigger a global economic crisis, which will hit Russia too.
Therefore Russia should use all the levers it has (mainly diplomatic ones) to try and prevent a crisis between China and Japan.
Moscow and Washington could act together here, trying to calm the opposing sides down. The USA could exercise influence over its ally, Japan, while Russia could exercise influence over its strategic partner, China.