Could China and Japan Go to War

Fareed Zakaria thinks its a possibility:

Asia’s greatest geopolitical problem is that its two great powers–with the two largest economies and militaries–have an unresolved, bitter relationship. China and Japan have never had to occupy the world stage as equals. One has always dominated the other. For most of the past 500 years, China was the region’s hegemon and Japan accepted its role as a distant satellite of the great Chinese empire. That changed in the late 19th century, as Japan became the first Asian country to modernize its economy and society and catch up to the West. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s military strength grew, and in 1895 it defeated the Qing dynasty in China. One of the consequences of the war was that Tokyo formally annexed the Senkaku Islands. But their sovereignty has been in dispute for the past 40 years, with China asserting its historic claims and Japan its modern possession.

Over the past two months, both countries have acted in ways that could easily spiral out of control toward conflict. There are almost daily encounters between Japanese and Chinese ships as they patrol these waters. On dry land, riots and protests have taken place in both countries–with the populations in each getting more nationalistic. There have been few efforts by either government to defuse the situation and move toward a diplomatic solution. The U.S. is involved too, because it is bound by treaty to go to Japan’s military aid if Japan is attacked, and Washington has confirmed that the Senkaku Islands are covered by this obligation. In other words, if one of these naval encounters goes awry and China and Japan get into a naval conflict, the U.S. could find itself involved in an Asian war.

One point of uncertainty is China’s new leadership. They have gone through something far more tumultuous than our recent election. The challenges they face are immense, and given the lack of political incentives within China’s system solutions may be few and far between.

China’s next President, Xi Jinping, will have to be a different kind of leader. Hu Jintao made only two live state-of-the-nation speeches to his people in his 10 years in office. Xi cannot behave like a Mandarin Emperor. He will have to change China’s economic strategy to ensure that the country keeps thriving. He will have to decide how to open up the political system enough to gain some legitimacy but not so much that the Communist Party loses its monopoly over power. And he will have to manage China’s shifting relations with its neighbors not just in the East China Sea but throughout the region–and with the world’s superpower–to preserve China’s influence and prevent conflict. It makes President Obama’s challenges look easy by comparison.

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