Japan targets China as islands dispute threatens to boil over   

William Engdahl
William Engdahl is an award-winning geopolitical analyst and strategic risk consultant whose internationally best-selling books have been translated into thirteen foreign languages. He has lectured as Visiting Professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology and delivers talks and private seminars around the world on subjects of current importance from economics to oil geopolitics to agribusiness. A widely discussed analyst of current political and economic developments, his provocative articles and analyses have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines and well-known international websites. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal and member of the editorial board of Eurasia magazine. Based in Frankfurt, Germany he may be reached via his website www.williamengdahl.com
Japan targets China as islands dispute threatens to boil over   
The simmering conflict between Japan and China over three islands in the East China Sea has just gotten significantly closer to an open conflict. 

Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just given orders to shoot down any aircraft, including Chinese surveillance drones, flying over “Japanese airspace” that refuses to leave. 

As Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was a creation of the US occupation after World War II and is known to be very close to Washington, it suggests that the Obama administration has given Abe the green light. 

On October 23, Abe gave orders to his Defense Ministry to shoot down any foreign drones that ignore warnings to leave Japanese airspace. 

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Abe also said that a resurgent Japan will "take a more assertive leadership role in Asia to counter China's power" and be placed "at the helm of countries in the region nervous about Beijing's military buildup." 

In response, Geng Yansheng, spokesman for China’s Defense Ministry, said that the training and flight of its military aircraft, including drones, over “relevant areas” of the East China Sea was in line with international law and practice. 

Then he delivered the alarming statement: “Chinese aircraft have never infringed on other countries' airspace, and China never allows other countries' aircraft to infringe on China's airspace." 

Geng added that if Japan took such moves, it would be a severe provocation to China and “an act of war, and China will take resolute measures to strike back. The Japanese side shall be responsible for the consequence.” 

Japanese nationalists carry national flags and placards during a rally over the Senkaku islands issue, known as the Diaoyu islands in China, in Tokyo on September 18, 2012. (AFP Photo/Yoshikazu Tsuno)

Following the Japanese orders to shoot down Chinese drones in its airspace, China sent four coastguard vessels to the disputed waters. The same day, China’s state-run Global Times wrote: “China has not been involved in war for a long time, but a war looms following Japan’s radical provocation.” 

With the statements from the two sides, the situation is rapidly degenerating into a Mexican standoff where if either side capitulates, they lose face. If both sides escalate, it could spell war and economic catastrophe for the region and for the entire world, especially if China is isolated. 

Edward Luttwak, a former Pentagon consultant and neo-conservative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, notes that it is against the Japanese character to retreat. He believes the Japanese will uphold orders to shoot down a Chinese drone if China tests the Japanese resolve. At that point the focus is on China. 

Luttwak remarked: “They’re playing with fire, but I cannot bring myself to believe that the Chinese leadership would actually cross the threshold.” He believes one of two things are behind China’s threats. 

“Either the Chinese government has taken leave of its senses,” or they’re using an age-old Chinese strategy “that you win by clever theatrical displays.”  He added, “The tiny shooting incident would initiate a chain of major economic consequences. It would bring to an end the cycle of Chinese prosperity.” 

Behind the islands clash

In early September 2012, the Japanese government of Abe’s predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, announced provocatively that it had decided to “buy” several islands in a disputed uninhabited island chain that are called the Diaoyu Islands in China. 

Thereby, Japan asserted its claim to all subsea rights surrounding the island group. Going back to China’s Ming Dynasty, the Diaoyu Islands were regarded as a marine defense zone and governed by the Ming Chinese government. 

The islands have enormous military-strategic significance for China’s coastal defense and the area around the islands is believed to hold huge deposits of vital oil and gas that could ease Chinese oil import dependence.

According to Kenichiro Sasae, Japan's ambassador to Washington, "The US government has made it clear that the islands are covered by the Japan-US Security Treaty." Sasae added that when Tokyo asked Washington’s views on whether Japan’s government should officially buy the islands, "The United States did not raise any opposition” to the move, he said. The US stance “was that it is a matter for Japan to decide." 

That US stance echoes very ominously the provocative stance that US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, was told to deliver to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein days before Hussein decided to invade Kuwait, when she conveyed the message from Washington’s Bush administration that whatever happened between Kuwait and Iraq was between those two countries and of little interest to Washington. 

According to Zhang Haiwen, associate director of the China Institute for Marine Affairs under the State Oceanic Administration of China, “Japan may further ask for an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and may take the Diaoyu Islands as the base to divide the continental shelf of the East China Sea and further ask for the relevant oil and gas resources.” 

Japanese nationalists carry national flags and placards during a rally over the Senkaku islands issue, known as the Diaoyu islands in China, in Tokyo on September 18, 2012. (AFP Photo/Yoshikazu Tsuno)

Zhang pointed out that geopolitically, the Diaoyu Islands have huge strategic and military value. The islands are the first island chain in the West Pacific, and are a springboard for entering China from the Pacific. ”If Japan controls the waters, it means Japan has clutched the throat of the channel in which China goes to the open sea of the Pacific,” Zhang said. 

On Sept. 10, 2012, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a formal protest over the provocative Japanese “buying” of the islands:  “Regardless of repeated strong representations of the Chinese side, the Japanese government announced on 10 September 2012 the “purchase” of the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated Nan Xiaodao and Bei Xiaodao and the implementation of the so-called “nationalization” of the islands. This constitutes a gross violation of China’s sovereignty over its own territory.”

The Japanese government has repeatedly stirred up troubles in recent years on the issue of the Diaoyu Island. Particularly since the start of the year, the Japanese government has endorsed rightwing forces to clamor for the “purchase” of Diaoyu Island and some of its affiliated islands in an attempt to pave the way for a government “purchase” of the islands... We cannot but ask: where is Japan heading to? Can anyone rest assured of Japan’s future course of development? 

The military pressures on China since President Obama’s November 2011 China-focused  “Asia Pivot” shift was proclaimed, have become apparent. How China’s new leadership will handle this delicate strategic dilemma will be a major test of its capabilities. Obviously a military solution is not the winning strategy as the US stands behind Japan. Over the coming months the stage is being carefully set for a colossal power confrontation between the rising China and its Eurasian allies, including prominently Putin’s Russia with Washington.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.