Playing chicken in the East China Sea

DoD/Chief Petty Officer Ty Swartz, U.S. Navy.

Article Highlights

  • It is naïve to assume the two sides will successfully avoid coming to blows.

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  • A surrender would mark the ascension of China over Japan as the region's major power and also encourage more Chinese pressure on Japan's water space.

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  • Leaving Japan to face China alone would destroy America's global alliance system

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Over the past two weeks, one of the largest naval standoffs in recent years played out between China and Japan. Off the disputed Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu in China), up to 20 Chinese maritime surveillance vessels were shadowed by 50 Japanese Coast Guard cutters, as the Japanese waited tensely for a reported 1,000-ship fishing flotilla to arrive from China. Although the private armada never materialized, this is the latest in a string of face-offs that increase the likelihood that confrontation will erupt, due as much to chance as to calculation.

The Senkakus are the farthest outreach of Japanese-claimed territory, anchoring the Ryukyu Island chain that stretches southwestward from Kyushu, one of Japan's home islands. Strategic planners in Tokyo have begun to refer to this chain as the "southwestern wall," a string of Japanese-held outposts that could be used to block Chinese maritime access to the western Pacific Ocean. While Beijing and Tokyo have sparred over the Senkakus before, most recently in 2010, the latest contretemps began when Tokyo purchased these islands from their private owners this month.

This is not only a matter of a military standoff. Street demonstrators attacked Japanese businesses in at least 85 cities. Major Japanese manufacturers in China such as Honda and Toyota suspended their operations. Japan Airlines slashed the number of flights between the two countries, while large retailers like Aeon department stores closed down their China branches.

Fueling the fire, an adviser to China's Ministry of Commerce called for Beijing to dump its $230 billion of Japanese government bonds. Meanwhile, Japanese exporters report that China is delaying the acceptance of Japanese goods at customs ports around the country, and rumors are beginning to circulate that Beijing will once again squeeze the supply of rare earths to Japan, which are vital for industrial production.

The Chinese believe that Japanese nationalism ignited the crisis. They argue that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda upended the status quo by nationalizing the islands in response to Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's plan to purchase them. Mr. Noda has also played the economy card, warning Beijing that its actions may scare away foreign investors, thus weakening China's already slowing growth

In such a situation, it is naïve to assume the two sides will successfully avoid coming to blows. Sure, both Tokyo and Beijing may currently be playing chicken over the East China Sea and may not have any intention of sparking hostilities. But the way nationalist passions have been stoked in both countries, particularly China, the possibilities of accident or miscalculation are rising. Tensions in the East China Sea have become bad enough for both America's Secretary of Defense and China's leading military commissar to warn that war could break out. Washington has implored both nations to solve the dispute peacefully.

But back in 2010, the U.S. made a similar request, and clearly that hasn't been heeded by either Tokyo or Beijing. Neither side can find a way to resolve the issue diplomatically. They won't surrender their claims, and they're increasingly letting domestic opinion drive their policies.

Beijing has a history of fanning nationalism through the bogey of militaristic Japan. But the stakes to Japan's security are indisputably high. If it fails to protect its administrative control over the Senkakus, then it will have put at risk all its disputed island territories, not merely in the East China Sea, but also those in the Sea of Japan and the northern Pacific. Further, a surrender would mark the ascension of China over Japan as the region's major power and also encourage more Chinese pressure on Japan's water space.

What if Tokyo decides tougher measures are needed against Chinese ships? That could bring into play both countries' navies, which so far have not been deployed in this crisis. This is a numbers game Japan can't win, since its roughly 50 frigates and destroyers would face nearly 200 PLA Navy destroyers, frigates and guided missile boats, not to mention 65 submarines and hundreds of fighter and attack aircraft. Japan may have a qualitative edge, but that would be worn down by China's ability to flood a combat zone with ships, subs and planes. Tokyo would be forced to turn to the United States for support under the mutual security treaty.

That would cause a great-power crisis unseen since the days of World War II, with untold economic fallout, not to mention the possibility of ever-widening military operations. Washington will have to decide how to deal with its treaty ally. Leaving Japan to face China alone would destroy America's global alliance system, while allowing China to redraw boundaries in Asia would simply hasten the decline of American influence.

This is the dilemma posed by China's increasingly aggressive rising power and is a foretaste of more tension to come. The long-term solution here is for the U.S. to lead its allies in maintaining a credible military presence in Asia's waters to oppose any attempts at unilaterally changing boundaries. That starts with drawing some inviolable red lines in the waters off the Senkakus to keep the peace.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin


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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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