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article imageOp-Ed: Real risk of war over islands — China and Japan get serious

By Paul Wallis     Feb 5, 2013 in World
Sydney - News is emerging from China and Japan which suggests that the two nations have more military forces than previously reported in the Daoyu/Senkaku islands region, and that these forces are now aiming missiles at each other.
So far, a Japanese destroyer has reported being “acquired” by fire control systems on a Chinese frigate. A Japanese helicopter had a similar experience. China has complained about Japanese fighters in the area. The Japanese say that their fighters have been scrambled 91 times in response to Chinese aircraft in the region between October and December last year.
Sydney Morning Herald:
Last month China's new Communist Party boss and military leader, Xi Jinping, took the rare step of ordering the People’s Liberation Army to be prepared for war.
A fortnight ago a People's Liberation Army officer, Colonel Liu Mingfu, ratcheted the sabre-rattling to a new level by raising a scenario with Fairfax Media that he said would justify a nuclear attack, while clarifying that he was not calling upon China to take such measures.
This week, however, a more powerful PLA general who is often categorised as a "hawk", and is known to be close to Mr Xi, called for cool heads to prevail.
Historically, the story is that China and Japan have had more war than peace in the last 150 years. The two nations have never quite overcome the legacy of World War 2, in which the much-ignored war between China and Japan went on from 1937 until 1945. Millions died in a war every bit as brutal as the Russian front.
China’s rather uncharacteristic intensity regarding the disputed islands may puzzle those who know the modern, ultra-pragmatic China but not the deep wounds of the past. China’s hideous experience from when it encountered the West and the Opium Wars through to the end of the Civil War in 1949 was a tale of serious humiliation and unbelievable misery. During this time, the Taiping Rebellion killed about as many people as the Great War, the senile and corrupt Qing Dynasty collapsed, warlords took over the nation, the Nationalists usurped Dr. Sun Yat Sen and produced an even more corrupt, semi Fascist state, and the Japanese invaded. China in effect was in a state of constant war and social chaos for nearly 100 years.
The Chinese resented, with reason, this historical hell in which the rest of the world participated in various forms. Other nations took advantage of China’s weakness, and China has never really forgotten or forgiven. Another part of the Sydney Morning Herald story is revealing:
"We should not be interrupted by accidental [warfare] again," wrote Gen Liu Yuan, in an essay extract published in the Global Times.
"What the Americans and the Japanese fear is that we will catch up with them, which is why they exhaust every possible means to suppress China's development," wrote Gen Liu. "We should not fall into their trap."
This is to some extent writing for the market, as it appears, but there's real content in there as well. “Accidental warfare” is a reference to some Chinese military classics as well as a description of the current situation.
News from China isn’t so hostile, but it’s chilly. People’s Daily uses innocuous looking language on the subject of the Japanese purchase of the islands and setting up of an administrative office to manage them:
Liang Yunxiang, a professor of Japanese studies at Peking University, said the new office will affect Sino-Japanese ties and further provoke China.
Tokyo sent a series of officials to China last month to mend ties dented following the Japanese government's illegal "purchase" of some parts of the Diaoyu Islands in September. They included former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, and Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the New Komeito Party, the junior coalition partner.
For those not familiar with the style, the words “illegal” and “provoke” are the operative words. “Provoke” is old Communist Party rhetorical language. “Illegal” is the new terminology. These words, however, aren’t cosmetic. They mean that the information is a direct statement from the official news organ of the government, not an opinion or simple reportage of an event.
Conflict scenarios
Any actual conflict between Japan and China wouldn’t be one sided, either way. The Japanese Self Defence Force is a competent, modern military force. It has modern weapons systems and if primarily designed for defensive operations also has obvious offensive capabilities. The PLA Navy and PLA Air Force have a respectable range of first line capabilities and definitely have the range to operate in the disputed area. They’re roughly evenly balanced, with a slight technical advantage to the Japanese and a numbers advantage to the Chinese.
Ironically, both nations have the same problem- The location of the islands. As a battlefield, these islands are a sideshow, strategically, in any sort of real confrontation. They’re basically useless tactically and at a significant distance from the bases of either side. A conflict in the actual area would also have the massive disadvantage of having forces easily visible to both sides.
Scenarios also point to a phased escalation of some sort, however brief. The Chinese could land on the islands and cause a Japanese reaction, with forces on hand to counter reactive Japanese moves. The Japanese could deploy naval forces to strike any attempt to land with air support.
An actual war between the two nations, however, would be a thankless task for the military of both sides. They’re at the extreme ends of each other’s logistic and tactical reach. They can’t invade each other. Nukes are out of the question for such a minor issue in which no actual justification for use of them can occur.
The US is unlikely to get involved in a clash of this kind unless a lot of the wrong buttons are pushed. There’s no strategic advantage in adding its weight to what is basically a politically convenient self serving squabble between China and Japan at this point.
The fallout, pun intended, of any actual conflict will be economic and it does neither side any good. The world’s second and third largest economies have a lot to lose here, in hard cash. A trade war would also affect nations like the EU, Australia and the US, all of which have major markets and trade interests in China and Japan. This is the scenario where everybody loses, and it’s quite capable of crashing global trade all over again. China would lose billions in revenue. Japan would take on a very expensive situation when it’s trying to restart its own seriously limping domestic economy.
Let’s hope somebody gets less hysterical in a hurry. They’re talking themselves into a war, and the outcome is already obviously not good.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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