War between China and Japan is still unlikely

Zack Beauchamp, “Why Everyone Needs To Stop Freaking Out About War With China,” 07 February 2014, ThinkProgress

… 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. …

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. …

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. …

Read the full article here.