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Why Everyone Needs To Stop Freaking Out About War With China

China’s been out of the news lately — the State of the Union only have mentioned it twice — but America’s allies are getting antsy about it. Just this Wednesday, Filipino President Benigno S. Aquino III compared China to Nazi Germany, telling the world to “remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II” when it thinks about Chinese territorial claims in Asian waters. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently reached back to the other world war, repeatedly warning the Davos summit in January that East Asia, much like Europe pre-World War I, was a violent tinderbox primed to explode after one bad incident.

Of the two, Abe’s comparison is by far more reasonable, and he did dispatch a deputy to say Japan “absolutely” did not beleive war was coming, but the damage was done. Asia experts are warning about the risk of a “new Cold War” between Japan and China — and others are terrified by the prospect of a hot one.

This is all dramatically overblown. War between China and Japan is more than unlikely: it would fly in the face of most of what we know about the two countries, and international relations more broadly. It’s not that a replay of 1914 is impossible. It’s just deeply, vanishingly unlikely.


One of the easiest ways to evaluate the risks of Sino-Japanese war is by reference to three of the most important factors that shape a government’s decision to go to war: the balance of power, economic incentives, and ideology. These categories roughly correspond to the three dominant theories in modern international relations (realism, liberalism, and constructivism), and there’s solid statistical evidence that each of them can play a significant role in how governments think about their decisions to use military force. So let’s take them in turn.

The main source of tension is an East China Sea island chain, called the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. While there are other potential flashpoints, the current heightened tensions are centered on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. Japan currently controls the islands, but China claims them, and the Chinese military has made increasingly aggressive noises about the islands of late.

But there’s one big factor shaping the balance of power in East Asia that means the talk is likely to remain just that: nuclear weapons. The tagline for World War I in 1914 — “The War To End All Wars” — would have a decidedly different meaning in 2014, as war’s end would be accomplished by the world’s end. So whereas, in 1914, all of the European powers thought they could win the war decisively, East Asia’s great powers recognize the risk of a nuclear exchange between the United States and China to be catastrophic. Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman calls this the end of the “preemption temptation;” nobody thinks they can win by striking first anymore. Indeed, despite the words of some of its military leaders, China (at least nominally) has a no-clash-with-Japan policy in place over the islands.

chinamilitaryThat also helps explain why the most commonly-cited Senkaku/Diaoyu spark, accidental escalation, isn’t as likely as many suggest. When The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne writes that there’s a “real risk of an accident leading to a standoff from which leaders in both countries would find it hard to back down in the face of popular nationalist pressure,” he’s not wrong. But it won’t happen just because two planes happen across each other in the sky. In 2013, with tensions running high the whole year, Japan scrambled fighters against Chinese aircraft 433 times.

Indeed, tensions have flared up a number of times throughout the years (often sparked by nationalist activists on side of the other) without managing to bleed over into war. That’s because, as MIT East Asia expert M. Taylor Fravel argues, there are deep strategic reasons why each side is, broadly speaking, OK with the status quo over and above nuclear deterrence. China has an interest in not seeming like an aggressor state in the region, as that’s historically caused other regional powers to put away their differences and line up against it. Japan currently has control over the islands, which would make any strong moves by China seem like an attempt to overthrow the status quo power balance. The United States also has a habit of constructive involvement, subtly reminding both sides when tensions are spiking that the United States — and its rather powerful navy — would prefer that there be no fighting between the two states.

Moreover, the whole idea of “accidental war” is also a little bit confusing . Militaries don’t just start shooting each other by mistake and then decide it’s time to have a war. Rather, an incident that’s truly accidental — say, a Japanese plane firing on a Chinese aircraft in one of the places where their Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) overlap — changes the incentives to go to war, as the governments start to think (perhaps wrongly) that war is inevitable and the only way to win it is to escalate. It’s hard to envision this kind of shift in calculation in East Asia, for all of the aforementioned reasons.


It’s wrong to talk about incentives to go war in purely military terms. A key component of the Senkaku/Diaoyou is economic: the islands contain a ton of natural resources, particularly oil and gas. But far more valuable are the trade ties between the two countries. China is Japan’s largest export market, so war would hurt Japan more than China, but it’d be pretty painful for both.

Proponents of the World War I parallel find a lot to criticize about this point. They like to cite Norman Angell, a pre-World War I international relations theorist famous for arguing that war was becoming economically obsolete. Angell is now often used interchangeably with Dr. Pangloss in international relations talk, a symbol of optimism gone analytically awry.

But Angell gets a bad rap. He didn’t actually say war was impossible; he merely claimed that it no longer was worth the cost (if you remember the aftermath of World War I, he was right about that). The real upshot of Angell’s argument is that, unless there’s some other overwhelming reason to go to war, mutually profitable trade ties will serve as a strong deterrent to war.

Angell may have been wrong about Europe, but he’s probably right about East Asia. M.G. Koo, a political scientist at Chung-Ang University, surveyed several Senkaku-Diaoyu flareups between 1969 and 2009. He found that economic ties between the two countries played an increasingly large role in defusing tensions as the trade relationship between the two countries deepened.

The 1978 crisis over the islands is a good example. Bilateral trade had grown substantially since the end of the last big dispute (1972), but they had entered into a new phase after Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms began in 1978. A key part of the early modernization plan was the Peace and Friendship Treaty (PFT) with Japan, a diplomatic treaty that (among other things) “facilitated a rush of Japanese firms into the Chinese market.” According to Koo, “policy circles in China and Japan” had “increasingly recognized that the [Senkaku/Diaoyu] sovereignty issue could possibly jeopardize the PFT negotiations, thus undermining economic gains.” The leadership tamped down tensions and, afterwards, “shelving territorial claims for economic development seemingly became the two countries’ diplomatic leitmotif in the treatment of the island dispute.”

There’s reason to believe today’s China and Japan aren’t bucking the historical pattern. Despite a year of heated rhetoric and economic tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, bilateral trade has been recovering nicely of late. Quartz’s Matt Phillips, looking over the numbers, concluded that “the China-Japan trade war is pretty much over.” Sure, Chinese business leaders are making some nationalistic noises, but Phillips points out that the “lack of mass, nationalistic protests in China suggests the powers-that-be have decided there’s no need for that to hurt an important business relationship.” Trade really does appear to be calming the waves in the East China Sea.


The last thing people worried about war between China and Japan cite is ideology. Specifically, a growing nationalism, linked to the history of antagonism between the two traditional East Asian powers, that threatens to overwhelm the overwhelming military and economic rationales that militate against war.

“At its root,” Asia experts Tatsushi Arai and Zheng Wang write, “the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute is an identity-based conflict in which the divergent memories, perceptions, attitudes, and aspirations of the two national communities combine in volatile combinations.” The gist of the problem is that both countries believe they have historical claims to the islands that extend at least back to 1895; Chinese books date its control way back in the Ming Dynasty. Japan claims it formally annexed the Senkakus after World War II; China claims that Japan should have handed the Diaoyus back as part of its post-World War II withdrawal from Chinese territory.

This historical conflict cuts across modern lines of tension in particularly dangerous ways. Japan, always threatened by China’s overwhelming size, is baseline skeptical of China’s military and economic rise. Aggressive moves in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute suggest to Japanese citizens that China’s plan is to eclipse and ultimately dominate Japan. China, by contrast, still has deep, visceral memories of the brutal Japanese occupation during World War II, and its history books cast Japan as the enemy responsible for its subordinate status in the past two centuries of global politics. Japanese defenses of the Senkakus come across as, once again, an attempt to keep China down.

Anti-Japan protestors in Hong Kong on the anniversary of Japan's WWII surrender.

Anti-Japan protestors in Hong Kong on the anniversary of Japan’s WWII surrender.

CREDIT: Vincent Yu/AP Images

To some observers, the risk that these nationalist impulses pressure leaders into military escalation during a crisis is the greatest risk of war. The “toxic mix of two rising nationalisms and unresolved mutual resentments” makes “the risks of an accidental conflict becomes uncomfortably real,” Isabel Hilton writes in The Guardian. Time’s Michael Crowley agrees, writing that “national pride and historical grievance” threaten “to drag in the U.S.” into a Pacific war.

But the importance of nationalism as a driving force on both the Chinese and Japanese side has been overblown. In fact, a deeper look at the prevailing ideological winds in both China and Japan suggest much more pacific forces are likely to carry the day.

First, while it’s easy to see China as an aggressive expansionist power bent on retaking its “rightful place” in East Asia by force, that’s simply inconsistent with China’s track record to date. In an influential 2003 article, Iain Alasdair Johnston, a professor of “China in World Affairs” at Harvard, argued that there’s overwhelming evidence China is more-or-less happy with the current international order. Johnston tested various measures of Chinese interest in upending the global order — like its willingness to work inside the U.N. and internal dialogues within PRC strategists about overtaking the United States — and found very little evidence of China seeking to overturn the global structure, including the U.S.–Japan–Korea alliance system that sets the terms in East Asia.

“The regime appears to be unwilling,” according to Johnston, “to bear the economic and social costs of mobilizing the economy and militarizing society to balance seriously against American power and influence in the region, let alone globally.” The Chinese leadership’s ideology is better understood, in Johnston’s view, as centering on expanding China’s power inside the international order rather than overturning through gambles like military aggression in the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain.

In the face of 2013’s flurry of headlines about a newly aggressive China, Johnston revisited his thesis. He found basically no evidence that the Chinese leadership had changed its tune. Panicked writers, in Johnston’s analysis, were focusing on minor changes in Chinese policy to the exclusion of major continuities (like continued and deepening economic ties with the United States). They were also consistently misinterpreting Beijing’s thinking during major so-called aggressive moves.

Take the 2010 Senkaku-Diaoyu flareup, after a Chinese trawler tried to ram some Japanese coast guard ships near the islands. Johnston found no evidence of serious Chinese escalation — the most serious such step reported, an embargo on shipping “rare earth” metals to Japan, was either very weakly enforced or never happened. Moreover, Beijing took explicit steps to tamp down anti-Japanese nationalism, placing anti-war editorials in major party outlets and shutting up the most anti-Japanese voices on the Chinese web during the most diplomatically sensitive time in the dispute.

In short, China’s track record in the past ten years suggests the government doesn’t share the hardline nationalist sentiment it occasionally indulges in. Rather, the Chinese government is interested in very moderate regional advances that stop well short of war, and is capable of shutting down the sort of nationalist outburst from its population that might goad the government into war well before such protests might start affecting policy.

What about Japan? It’s true that Abe himself holds some fairly hardline nationalist views. For instance, he won’t admit that Japan waged an aggressive war during World War II, which is a pretty gobsmacking bit of revisionism if you think about it. In December, Abe visited a shrine that honors (among others) Japanese war criminals from that era, a move that contributed to the recent bout of nationalistic strife.

But there are a number of reasons to think that the resurgent Japanese nationalism Abe represents isn’t going to force war during a crisis. For one thing, his government’s coalition partners would do their damndest to block escalation. New Komeito, whose support keeps Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in power, is an odd duck: pacifict Buddhist libertarians is way oversimplified, but it gets the point across. Regardless, they are extremely serious about their pacifism — it’s at the core of their political identity, and it inclines them towards a more generous stance towards Beijing. They’d exert a calming pressure in any crisis.

Now, there are rumblings that the LDP and New Komeito may part political ways. But the cause of the split — a disagreement over rewriting or reinterpreting Article 9, the pacifist article in Japan’s constitution — reveals the broadest check on Japanese nationalism. Simply put, the Japanese people still retain much of the nation’s post-World War II pacifist core, and Abe’s government has governed accordingly.

Mike Mochizuki, the Japan-U.S. Relations Chair at George Washington University, took a hard look at Japanese opinion about militarization in the Abe era. He and his coauthor, Samuel Porter, found enormous Japanese opposition to anything resembling a significant return to active military status. For instance, 56 percent of Japanese voters supported seeing the treaty as prohibiting “collective self-defense” (meaning defense of its allies when attacked). A miniscule 7 percent wanted to see Japanese troops “fighting on the frontlines with the U.S. military.”

So why did they support Abe’s aggressive LDP? In a word, the economy. Japan’s citizens aren’t deeply aligned with the LDP philosophy — “83 percent,” according to Mochizuki and Porter, “felt that a party that can effectively oppose the LDP is necessary” in government. Rather, they threw out the previous government because the economy was in tatters. Sixty percent of Japanese voters want Abe to focus on the economy, while only 9 percent see foreign policy as the priority.

Abe’s government, nationalist stunts aside, isn’t unaware of this reality. Because China is Japan’s number one trading partner, “reviving Japan’s economy will be inordinately difficult if fractious political relations with China are allowed to damage Japan–China economic relations,” Mochizuki and Porter argue. “If Sino–Japanese relations were to deteriorate further and lead to a more precipitous drop in Japanese exports to China, this would jeopardize Abe’s growth strategy and thereby threaten his political survival.” As a consequence, they conclude, the Prime Minister’s approach to the Senkaku dispute “will be measured and will not entail full-blown militarization,” let alone short term escalation. Abe and the LDP rank militaristic nationalism a distant second to the nation’s economic health.

Of course it’s possible that, at one point in the future, all of this changes. Chinese hard power continues to grow, Japan remilitarizes in a big way, and the United States pulls back it security guarantee. In that world, a combination of security competition and nationalist fever might well swamp the economic incentives against war.

But it’s important to remember that we’re nowhere close to that reality. Too often, our political discourse dramatically inflates the threats facing the United States, leading to distorted, paranoid policy responses when something more measured would do.

There’s a lot going in East Asia that matters to American policymakers. We should focus on solving those real problems, not the ephemeral specter of a vanishingly unlikely war.

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