How Close are China and Japan to War?

Not a question you expect to see, in an age when major powers don’t fight one another directly anymore. Bad form, or some such. And surely the last time we all did that, the going was pretty grim. And yet that’s the question asked today by NRO’s Michael Auslin. Here’s the rub:

Especially raising tensions in the region is a passel of territorial disputes over islets that has pitted China against countries in southeast and northeast Asia and put Japan at odds with all its major neighbors. But the one key disagreement is between Japan and China in the East China Sea. There, an archipelago called the Senkaku Islands is claimed by Japan, Taiwan, and China. The islands sit near rich undersea oil and gas deposits, but, being situated just northeast of Taiwan, they also are in a crucial strategic location. They form the southernmost link in a chain of islands (including Okinawa and others) held by Japan that separate the East China Sea from the Pacific. The chain that ends with the Senkakus thus acts as a defensive barrier that conceivably could be used to prevent Chinese naval vessels from entering the wider Pacific.

Thus, Japan’s control of the islands presents a problem for Beijing. The history is murky, but Japanese control really didn’t start until the late 19th century. In 1945, the U.S. took over the Senkakus, and it returned them (along with Okinawa) to Tokyo’s administrative control in 1972. In recent years, however, basically since oil and gas were discovered nearby, China has reasserted a historical claim to the islands. Since the possibility of extractable energy reserves was discovered a decade ago, both Japan and China have tussled over whose islands (and resources) they really are.

One thing this Administration has gotten right is refocusing our force structure away from the Atlantic and into the Pacific. One thing Obama hasn’t gotten wrong, is allowing the smaller PacRim powers to flock towards us as China flexes its growing muscles. (To be fair, it would take a clusterfudge of colossal proportions to get that one wrong, as it mostly involves letting diplomatic nature take its course. We’re the outside power without territorial ambitions, and China is the scary-looking neighbor peeing on all the fences.)

Here’s another case where doing very little, other than reaffirming our historical and legal commitments to Japan, should be quite enough.