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China-Japan tensions 'unlikely to lead to war'

Publication Date : 22-02-2014


Could the current tensions between China and Japan escalate into a war? Three observers think it unlikely.

Despite animosity between the two countries at a high over disputed territory in the East China Sea, the three experts - East Asian Institute chairman Wang Gungwu, Nanyang Technological University international relations academic Kei Koga and The Straits Times deputy news editor Peh Shing Huei - expressed "cautious optimism" that several factors would stand in the way of outright hostilities.

These included the presence of a solid US-Japan alliance, where Washington - whose maritime armaments far outstrip Beijing's - has made it clear that it will come to Tokyo's aid, and the knowledge that, like during the Cold War, any escalation into military action could mean mutually assured destruction.

They were speaking at a forum titled "Will There Be Another Sino-Japan War?" hosted by NUS Tembusu College on Thursday.

Peh, who headed the Straits Times' China bureau and wrote the book, When The Party Ends: China's Leaps And Stumbles After The Beijing Olympics, noted that rising nationalism among ordinary Chinese exacerbated the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

But rational voices existed among the populace as well, he added.

For instance, after a Chinese driver of a Toyota car was severely beaten up during anti-Japan protests in 2012, the leader of the demonstrations came to his aid and helped the police hunt down the culprit.

Whether the group of moderates can outweigh those who are passionately nationalistic will be decisive in pushing China towards, or away from, greater hostility with Japan, he said.

Dr Koga noted that the broader context of current tensions between China and Japan is the uncomfortable re-balancing that has occurred in the region over the last decade.

Whether in military spending or gross domestic product, China has now eclipsed Japan to be the second superpower in the world, behind the United States.

But the US' promise to intervene in the conflict should the Chinese do anything to alter the status quo is a big enough incentive to keep only to "skirmishes" rather than open war, he said.

Professor Wang turned to history: The Cold War never became "hot" because both superpowers then, the US and the Soviet Union, knew that it would be "mutually assured destruction" if they ever waged real war on each other. Restoring such a "central balance" to the conflict between China and Japan would ensure that neither escalates clashes beyond a certain point, he said.

"No matter what their people feel or say, their leaders would know it is suicide."

The forum was moderated by Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, rector of Tembusu College, who lamented that the rhetoric between diplomats of China and Japan has become extremely antagonistic, with both sides trying to "demonise" the other.

"We in Southeast Asia who are friends of both can play a very small role - although our influence is marginal - to remind them of their common interests and to reduce this mutual suspicion and antagonism," he said.


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