East Asia tension echoes Europe's descent into world war
Chinese poster in which a helicopter hovers above the disputed islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
The Russian fighter aircraft incursion into Japanese airspace near the Kurile Islands last week follows closely the recent activation of Chinese weapons radars aimed at Japanese military platforms around the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands (as they are known respectively by the Japanese and Chinese claimants).
These are the latest in a series of incidents in which Japan has been confronted by assertive neighbours. Russia and China apparently feel the time has come to challenge the regional demarcations of the world order agreed to at San Francisco following the conclusion of the Second World War. At the same time, North Korea is poised to enter the fray with nuclear weapons testing that would further unsettle the equation.
China's activation of weapons radars responsible for cueing supersonic missile systems give those on the receiving end only a split second to respond. Similarly, incursions by Russian military aircraft are prompting a reinvigoration of Japan's military posture not just to the south but back to the north as well. With Japanese law empowering local military commanders with increased discretion to respond (thanks to North Korea's earlier provocations) such incidents could easily escalate. Yet in an era of well-established UN-related adjudication bodies such as the International Court of Justice, how has it come to this?
China's rise is coupled with a disturbing surge in jingoism across east and south-east Asia. China resents the shackles of history that saw the United States hand responsibility for the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to Japan and that left large chunks of the South China Sea claimed and occupied by countries that emerged in the post-colonial order of south-east Asia. Oil and gas reserves are attractive reasons for China to assert itself, but challenging the United States' place in east Asian waters is the main objective.
China resents American ''re-balancing'' as an attempt at ''containment'': even though US dependence on Chinese trade and finance makes that notion implausible. China is pushing the boundaries of the accepted post-Second World War world order championed by the US and epitomised by the United Nations. Russia appears to see this moment of Chinese assertiveness as the time to join in, further unsettling security arrangements and challenging the US before the new Obama administration is settled in.
China looks increasingly as if it is not prepared to abide by UN-related conventions established mostly by powers it sees as having exploited China in its century-long moment of weakness from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. That period culminated with China absent from the table when the rules of the liberal international order were first established. Yet, arguably, it is in the defence of these institutions that the peaceful rise of China is most likely to be assured. In the absence of China's willingness to submit to such mechanisms as the ICJ and with Russian probing occurring in step to match China's assertiveness, the prospect of conflict increases.
Japan's conservative prime minister will need to exercise great skill and restraint in managing domestic reactions. A near-term escalation cannot yet be ruled out. Japan recognises that Russian military capabilities are a fraction of what they were at the height of the Cold War and that China's naval forces are not yet mature. And Japan would not want to enter into a conflict without US support, at least akin to the discreet support given to Britain in the Falklands War in 1982. Without such assurance Japan would not want to expose the reluctance of the US to engage militarily.
China's leadership remains vulnerable to domestic instability and so may seek to appeal to jingoistic nationalism to rally the nation against foreign bogeymen. Indeed, the Chinese state has built up an appetite for vengeance against Japan through its manipulation of films, and history textbooks. On the other hand, Chinese authorities recognise that the peaceful rise advocated by Deng Xiao Ping is not yet complete (militarily at least) and in the meantime it is prudent to exercise some restraint to avoid an overwhelming and catastrophic response.
Australia has an important role to play in advocating restraint on all sides and encouraging China to see that its rise is best achieved through collaboration and through operating within the parameters of established institutions. But declaring up front that Australia will not support Japan, as some have suggested, and refusing to lend at least diplomatic support over such incidents leaves the field open to further escalation. It is hard to see how allowing this to happen would be in Australia's or the region's interests. Indeed, taking such a position used to be called appeasement.
Dr John Blaxland is a military historian at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.
Rikki Kersten is professor of modern Japanese political history in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.