The East China Sea may see the world's first war started by aerial drones. Unless China and Japan quickly find some way to settle their territorial dispute, they are moving toward a military clash. And with Barack Obama wounded abroad and at home by everything from NSA spying to ObamaCare implementation, America is playing no role in this dangerous affair. The result is an Asia more prone to conflict than at any time in recent memory.
The Japanese-Chinese territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands was botched last year by Tokyo, led at the time by the now-discredited Democratic Party of Japan. Reacting to China's increasingly intrusive presence in the waters around the Japanese-administered islands, and fearing that maverick former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara would carry through his threat to purchase the islands, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda nationalized several of the islands after buying them from their private owners in September 2012.
China responded instantly with anti-Japanese riots and a freezing of diplomatic relations. Chinese patrol vessels and fishing boats began tense face-offs with Japan's Coast Guard. Within months, both nations' air forces began more active aerial patrols. Two months ago, China upped the ante by flying surveillance drones in such contested airspace. Japan responded by saying it would shoot down any drone that refused to leave the skies above the islands. Beijing says that any attack on its drones would be an act of war.
This conflict is accelerated partly by technology. By sending naval flotillas through international waters that pass between Japanese islands, flying early-warning airborne-control planes near strategic choke points, and ramping up its use of drones, China is flexing the military might it has developed (and stolen from the U.S.) over the past two decades.
Japan's military is also modernizing after years of stagnation, and now it has to come up with rules of engagement for unmanned military systems, something few other countries have had to do. China's rise is challenging traditional military doctrine in this way and others, from its cyber aggression to its capabilities in space (such as anti-satellite weapons). The United States, Russia, India and others are watching the East China Sea confrontation for clues about China's operational capabilities, military doctrine and confidence to confront advanced nations.
The drone scare has highlighted the lack of any diplomatic relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is again subordinating necessary economic reforms to his desire to restore Japan's standing in the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown no desire to ease tensions with Japan since taking full power earlier this year. And with Beijing's Central Committee plenum this weekend, no Chinese leader will want to appear to be backing down in the face of Mr. Abe's apparent nationalism.
Across Asia, the Chinese-Japanese dynamic raises concerns that regional disputes will be settled only by might. That makes smaller countries nervous-especially those facing their own territorial disputes with China-and it makes it more difficult to develop any meaningful regional political mechanisms. China's use of drones and advanced aircraft is also certain to drive Asia's arms spending even higher.
Washington may want to avoid endorsing the territorial claims of either Tokyo or Beijing, but war is in no one's interest-especially when America's treaty alliance with Japan puts U.S. troops (let alone U.S. credibility) on the line. One way or another, this crisis will change the balance of power in East Asia: Either Japan will surrender territory it has controlled for a generation, or China will back down, becoming more resentful of today's international system than before.
At a minimum, it is time for Secretary of State John Kerry to bring his penchant for negotiations to Asia. Given all the outstanding problems in Sino-Japanese relations, a spell of crisis diplomacy might just shock the two countries into understanding how much is at stake.
Beyond that, the U.S.-Japanese alliance means that Washington needs to make clear that its military support will be immediately forthcoming should China cross the line or goad Japan into using force to protect its territory. Privately, the two allies need to have clear discussions on what exactly would trigger the treaty's mutual-defense provisions, so that Tokyo doesn't overreach in its response to China.
The laissez-faire approach has failed in all three capitals. With technology outstripping experience, it is time for some old-fashioned diplomacy to keep the East China Sea from boiling over.