The Twenty-First Century China Syndrome

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The 1979 film The China Syndrome took its title from a hypothetical form of nuclear meltdown. In 2012, the same phrase might be used to describe the overheating of relations between China and its neighbours, a confrontation which could draw the other great powers, including the United States, into full-scale war.

The dispute between China and Japan over a chain of tiny, uninhabited islands seems strange at first glance. Japan has renounced military force since 1945, while China has expended great effort to emphasise its ‘peaceful development’. The specifics of the Senkaku/Diaoyu case do not provide much illumination on the conundrum, as the possible gas and oil reserves – the only value of the islands – remain unproven and are in any case less valuable than bilateral trade. The standoff is better seen as one manifestation of the shifting power balance in East Asia, exacerbated by historical Sino-Japanese animosity.

Throughout history, either Japan or China has dominated the region. Mostly, China’s size and wealth gave it the upper hand. Japan’s industrialisation and modernisation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reversed the usual order, and culminated in the hugely destructive invasion of China by Japan, which merged after 1941 with the Second World War. The unexpected usurpation of position and the subsequent wartime atrocities have been a source of resentment to the Chinese ever since, there having been no post-war rapprochement comparable to that in Europe. Indeed, while the thought of the Mayor of Berlin defending or denying Auschwitz, Babi Yar or the Blitz is preposterous, the Governor of Tokyo (whose plan to buy the islands sparked the crisis) considers the Japanese equivalent, the Rape of Nanjing, to be Chinese propaganda. [1]

It is in this context that the rise of China must be seen; from Beijing’s perspective, it is simply a reversion to the natural state of things in Asia. From Tokyo, it looks instead like a return to the subservient status of bygone centuries. The other countries of the region have similar fears, Korea, Vietnam and parts of the Philippines having once been tributary states to Imperial China. [2]

Historical tensions and fear of economic eclipse are compounded by the rapid expansion of Chinese military strength, especially the navy, which recently launched its first prototype aircraft carrier. A Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine and refitted, the Liaoning is far from combat-ready, but it is a clear indication that China seeks power-projection capabilities. So too is the revelation of China’s stealth fighter project. Concerns over China’s intentions will not have been allayed by the increasingly nationalistic tone taken by state media, one of the few ways the outside world can divine the attitudes of the opaque Politburo.

China’s emerging military power puts pressure on Japan, which has been largely demilitarised since 1945. This is where America comes in. Japanese security has been underwritten by the USA since the end of military occupation in 1951. The State Department confirmed recently that the US would be obligated to defend Japanese sovereignty over the islands should they be attacked, even though it takes no position on the rightful claimant to the territory. Any dispute that could see China fighting a US-Japan alliance must be taken seriously, however improbable. Furthermore India and Australia also feel threatened by China and have increasingly close relations with the US and Japan, [3] whilst Russia has border disputes with Japan and, like China, belongs to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. These factors increase the possibility of a conflict which would merit the term world war.

The great danger is not a devastating, Pearl Harbor-style attack, but a spark igniting a tinderbox, as in Sarajevo in 1914. Small skirmishes with a few shots fired and a dozen sailors killed would harden public opinion, further undermining the Japanese taboo against militarism, already under pressure from the Right. At this point a limited ‘Falklands’ war over the islands becomes likely. In itself, this would not be catastrophic. However, the current emasculated Japanese Self-Defence Forces could not hope to hold the islands against even a small Chinese task-force. Therefore Japan’s leaders would have to decide between rearmament and calling upon US help, or ceding at least some of the islands. Given the remarks of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, never mind those of his Right-wing challenger Shinzo Abe, Japan may not back down. [4]

A decade ago, the outcome of any war would have been victory for the US and its allies. That can no longer be assumed. Beijing has been highly astute in recent years, recognising that simply matching the US is unrealistic in the near future. Therefore it has developed cheaper, easier ways to level the playing field. Instead of trying to build a large number of aircraft carriers, China has developed the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile, colloquially known as a ‘carrier-killer’. Mindful that US communications and targeting systems are heavily reliant on satellites, the People’s Liberation Army has sought to acquire the ability to destroy satellites in orbit. The effectiveness of these strategies is as yet unknown, but China is almost certainly more of a match for the US in the northern Pacific than a simple comparison of conventional forces would suggest.

Of course, predicting world political events is notoriously difficult, and these conjectures are worst-case scenarios. Nonetheless, China Syndrome – the headaches and anxiety caused by the emergent superpower – could plague Japan and America for years to come.

Article by Ben Zwolinski. Edited by Ben Mackay.

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