Could a Dispute Over Uninhabited Islands Drag the U.S. into a Pacific War in 2013?

It was recently reported that Japanese fighters were conducting flights over islands claimed by both China and Japan. Japan's Defense Ministry has said that the fighters were scrambled to intercept Chinese planes that approached the disputed islands. The uninhabited islands at the heart of the diplomatic spat have a collective area of a little less than three square miles. However, despite their small size and lack of population, Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, believes that the territorial dispute is the latest sign that China and Japan are heading for war. Perhaps most worrying, White foresees the U.S. getting dragged in.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald White says:

THIS is how wars usually start: with a steadily escalating stand-off over something intrinsically worthless. So don't be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China next year over the uninhabited rocks that Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyu islands. And don't assume the war would be contained and short.

White also points out that, as with other conflicts, the bickering between China and Japan is really a symptom of other tensions, namely those between American and Chinese interests:

In the past few years China has become both markedly stronger and notably more assertive. America has countered with the strategic pivot to Asia. Now, China is pushing back against President Barack Obama's pivot by targeting Japan in the Senkakus.

The Japanese themselves genuinely fear that China will become even more overbearing as its strength grows, and they depend on America to protect them. But they also worry whether they can rely on Washington as China becomes more formidable. China's ratcheting pressure over the Senkakus strikes at both these anxieties.

The situation puts all of the major players in an awkward situation:

These mutual misconceptions carry the seeds of a terrible miscalculation, as each side underestimates how much is at stake for the other. For Japan, bowing to Chinese pressure would feel like acknowledging China's right to push them around, and accepting that America can't help them. For Washington, not supporting Tokyo would not only fatally damage the alliance with Japan, it would amount to an acknowledgment America is no longer Asia's leading power, and that the ''pivot'' is just posturing. And for Beijing, a backdown would mean that instead of proving its growing power, its foray into the Senkakus would simply have demonstrated America's continued primacy. So for all of them, the largest issues of power and status are at stake. These are exactly the kind of issues that great powers have often gone to war over.

The U.S. has managed to get involved in some truly silly disputes, but this one would be especially notable.

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  • R C Dean||

    THIS is how wars usually start: with a steadily escalating stand-off over something intrinsically worthless.

    Since backing down to an aggressive foreign power generally only encourages more aggression, I'm not sure that it really makes a difference where you draw your line in the sand: all too often, they will keep pushing until they cross it. See, e.g., "peace in our time".

    Note: I have no clue who has the better legal claim to these islands, nor do I much care.

  • DJF||

    Since neither you nor I have any claim on these islands then lets not get involved, no matter how many lines in the sand other people draw.

  • SIV||

    As long as we prohibit Japan from defending themselves we are involved. The US should allow Japan to develop their forces to whatever level they deem sufficient.The new conservative government would likely be happy to assume that responsibility. China wouldn't like it but tough shit.

  • DJF||

    As far as I know there is no legal US/Japan treaty which prevents the Japanese from defending themselves

    There is a Japanese Constitution which prohibits offensive warfare but not defense. That is why the Japanese military is called the Japanese Self Defense force.

    There is also some tradition to keep the Japanese defense budget to 1% or less but that is not in the Constitution.

    The Japanese have also given up the right to nuclear weapons but many other countries have done the same.

  • megakids||

    You need to update your news. The Japs new (or old returned) PM is trying to "change" that, though the common view is that he will not succeed because the "master" will show him the door if he insisted, like the last time.

  • CE||

    Since the islands are uninhabited, why not nuke them into nonexistence?

  • ||

    Cut the baby in half.

  • ||

    I think the islands come with fishing rights. This is really what China and Japan are fighting over.

    Feeney in his brilliance chose not to give us that information.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Since President Barry is an unrepentant interventionist, but also a moral coward, expect him to punt if Japan and China increasingly look to the US for a resolution of the dispute.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Little things mean a lot. Particularly when there's quite a bit of oil and gas within 200 miles of them. 200 miles is the radius of the Exclusive Economic Zone within which a nation can exclusively utilize any of the resources there. Including oil and gas. A 1969 UN report claimed significant O and G deposits there, but a 2008 IEA report listed anticipated reserves of only 20 million bboe. (Scroll down to the Senkaku Islands discussion). Here's the Congressional Research Service's take on the subject, particularly the U.S.'s treaty obligations therein, if any.

    I'm not seeing how this is our fight.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    listed anticipated reserves of only 20 million bboe*.

    That is a LOT of oil.

    *bboe = billion barrels *of* oil equivalent

  • Gray Ghost||

    My kingdom for an edit button. The link---if you scroll down enough, I recommend Ctrl-F for Senkaku---mentions 20 million barrels of oil. No mention of equivalents, and the link it cites is down, and I don't have time to dig it out of the IEA's website. So...say an equivalent amount of gas and it's still not enough to spar over.

    Not that war ever usually makes economic sense.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    I went to the link and they said it was approx 17.9 mbbl.

    Field Estimated Oil Reserves (Mbbl)
    Canxue 5
    Baoyunting 4.5
    Chunxiao 3.8
    Cuanqaio 2.2
    Wuyunting 1.9
    Tianwaitin .5
    Total: 17.9

  • Gray Ghost||

    Yeah, that's it. They don't mention gas at all, which is sorta surprising, even though it's a 2008 report. Gas is a lot harder to deal with though if you don't already have the pipeline to send it to either the customer or a LNG plant. The islands are a fairly long way away from shore. I don't think there's such a thing as a FPSO that liquefies large amounts of gas, though I'm probably wrong.

    Who knows what's actually there though? Could be a whole lot more. What would a survey in the 1970s have thought was lurking beneath the pre-salt off of Brazil?

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    According to wiki, the current state of FLNG (Floating liquefied natural gas) is here.

    Not working in the offshore part, I am surprised there are not more of these and further along in development. It makes me think the fields have to be huge to make it worthwhile. The 17.9 mbbl at WTI price ($91.20) is only $1.632 billion.

  • PapayaSF||

    Thank you, Gray Ghost. It's ridiculous that this post would somehow not mention the oil and gas and 200 mile radius that make these islands worth something.

  • Gray Ghost||

    The pisser is that 17 million barrels of oil isn't really that much, as these things go. That's what? Not quite $2.5 billion on the open market, and that doesn't take into account the capital costs it'll take to get that oil out of the ground.

    Christ, 2 of their Aegis destroyers'll cost that much by themselves. And they'll lose a lot more than that if these guys decide it's worth killing over.

    I still think that someone like Chevron's gone and done a much better survey and found a lot more o and g than that. Wonder if any test wells have been dug and what they found?

  • PapayaSF||

    There might also be fishing rights involved.

  • Adam330||

    I can't believe China would foolish enough to start this next year. They're increasing in military power, but they are still no match for the US. And this is precisely the type of conventional air and naval conflict the US military excels at.

  • Jordan||

    Chinese missile technology is very good. I don't think they would have much difficulty putting our carriers at the bottom of the ocean. Their submarines are probably good enough to do that too. I have a friend who was an officer on an Aegis destroyer, and the description he gave me of the latest generation of Chinese missile tech was very scary. The window of opportunity to detect one of those buggers is unbelievably small.

  • Raven Nation||

    Plus, China would be fighting on much shorter supply lines & (IIRC) within range of its land-based aircraft.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Chinese missile technology is very good. I don't think they would have much difficulty putting our carriers at the bottom of the ocean.

    I do, not that my opinion is worth the phosphors it glows upon. Finding the carriers sufficiently to get a good enough target solution would be challenging for the PRC, and what few commentators have mentioned in their glowing praise of things like the DF-21 is that the damned thing looks just like a nuclear-armed IRBM until it hits. Think the U.S. is going to blithely stand by while they think the 7th Fleet is getting nuked? Think the PRC wants to risk any potential retaliation, like, I dunno, a decapitating strike on their leadership and nuclear assets? There's a reason that two nuclear armed powers haven't fought other than in very limited, constrained circumstances (thinking stuff like the Siachen Glacier, and even that tapered off, once Pakistan started building up a decent nuclear arsenal); it's that the downsides for screwing up and pushing the other side too hard are literally Armageddon.
    [Cont.]

  • Gray Ghost||

    Giant air-sea shit like this, with a lot of sea room for an ostensible littoral conflict, is right in the USN's core competency. Now, the usual rule with conflicts like these is that something completely unanticipated shows up and screws up everyone's analysis (Exocets in the Falklands, stealth/lgb combo in Desert Storm), so something weird will probably happen in a hypothetical Sino-U.S. naval war too.

    My guess is that the U.S. will let both sides know that it intends to stay out (probably by weaseling that the Islands aren't really Japanese territory, therefore Japan hasn't been attacked, therefore our treaty obligations haven't been triggered) and yet will react very unfavorably if either side tries to make this a serious shooting war. What could the U.S. do to either China or Japan, economically, to hurt them enough to make them not want to physically fight each other?

  • ChrisO||

    Stop buying their shit. Both China and Japan are heavily dependent on selling us consumer goods.

    We're still the linchpin of the Asian economy, which will have as much to do with the situation as military strength.

    My guess is that there will be some type of settlement that neither party likes very much. Long term, it's pretty clear that Japan is going to have to become a nuclear power if they want to stop being dependent on the USA for defense.

  • Gray Ghost||

    I think the average American voter and consumer, if the choice was put to them, would choose war over an embargo against Chinese and Japanese consumer goods...

    Agree with you that it'll end up with the sort of settlement you describe. I'm not sure how you get the Japanese to embrace becoming a nuclear power though. (Hell, I am wondering if they're going to still going to use nuclear power anymore, post Fukushima) Do you have to wait for the Hiroshima generation to die off?

  • ChrisO||

    Such an embargo is pretty much automatic if a war starts. I'm sure the Chinese are aware of that.

    They're also in precarious position right now, having a huge bubble economy. That works both ways, since warmongering is a good domestic distraction from economic difficulty, but also risks plunging their economy into disaster.

    There's been a growing call in Japan to become less dependent on the USA military, and I believe that includes developing nuclear weapons. They already have the technology and could have weapons ready in very short order, if need be.

  • CE||

    Chinese cloaking technology for ships and planes would be a wildcard.

  • Michael Price||

    The US will not treat a BM attack as a nuke until it's confirmed to be one. There's nothing they can do to stop it anyway, and retaliation is just as good five minutes later as it is now. Losing a carrier is no reason to start lobbing nukes.

  • Thane of Whiterun||

    I tend to be suspicious about reports on China's scary new weapons; while no doubt they have new weapons and they are scarier than the ones before them, I suspect that MIC-types would like us to be more wary than necessary and buy newfangled weapons to combat them.

  • ||

    Trust me. If we were to go to war with China it would be nothing like the last several wars we've been involved with. Their surface to air missile capability would preclude air dominance for quite a while. We would lose a significant number of aircraft/pilots. Their shit is amazing.

  • Thane of Whiterun||

    Oh, of course, it would be nowhere near the kind of resounding victories we've had in the past decades (against conventional military, at least).

    I'm just saying that the casualties on our side will be high but not as enormous as some prognosticators would lead you to believe.

    The last I've heard is that (in the context of China vs. Taiwan/ROC with American help) China would be able to fend off our air power pretty well and cause serious headaches for our naval surface fleet, but that our submarines would easily stop any attempt to move troops off of the mainland.

  • ||

    How would subs stop aircraft?

    He who controls the skies...

    No 4th generation aircraft can survive in a double digit SAM environment. No aircraft leaves the fleet vulnerable.

    1 carrier = 3000 peeps and $9B

  • Thane of Whiterun||

    China does not have viable air transports for troops and hence would have to move them by sea.

  • ||

    20 IL-76s with 30 on order.
    Il-76

    And this:
    Y-20

    Not condoning getting involved. Just pointing out that our newfangled weapons development is based upon actual potential threats. Technology marches on. The problem isn't that we develop new top of the line weapons but the policies that condone their use. Why should we give a fuck about Japan? Let them shoulder their own defense.

  • megakids||

    US excels at nothing constructive. China needs not "match" you, as long as it is "painful" enough. That's the gem of eastern philisophy. Hit a python at the 7th inch, that's good enough. To the US, the Chinese message is: Come if you dare. If you even hesitate, you lose!

  • Delroy||

    Maybe China can build a Tower of Peace and the Chinese leader could invite the Japanese leader to the top?

  • Steve G||

    "China has become ...notably more assertive."
    What, did they 'pivot' towards us?
    Always amazed at the 1st world assessment of nations building their military. Buying/modernizing hardware always equals going on the offensive.
    Action-Reaction

  • DJF||

    Its not just Japan/China. There is also the US getting involved in various island territorial disputes between Taiwan/China, Philippines/China and even Vietnam/China. The ‘leadership” in Washington both D’s and R’s are so crazy that they are getting involved in a dispute between the communist dictatorship of Vietnam and the communist dictatorship of China.

    How about instead we follow the advice of an old dead white guy named G. Washington who mentioned the dangers of entangling alliances

  • Raven Nation||

    Generally agree. But see James Sharp, "American Politics in the Early Republic," for another take on Washington's interpretation of "entangling alliances."

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Krugabe votes "Aye."

  • MarkR||

    We should definitely stay out of it. Congress was foolish to take sides. Japan was the one to escalate this conflict by nationalizing the Senkaku islands. Our treaties should not obligate us to support them in every foolishness they wish to engage in. If the treaty does obligate us, we should revise it or withdraw from it. Japan is free to change their constitution to allow for more military development, it's not something we can (or should) stop them from doing. We should also consider moving our base from Okinawa to somewhere else in the Pacific, to avoid such entanglements between Japan and China.

  • Thane of Whiterun||

    We should also consider moving our base from Okinawa to somewhere else in the Pacific, to avoid such entanglements between Japan and China.

    Ssshhhh, be quiet, if the hawks hear you they will move the base to Taiwan.

  • megakids||

    That's great! That's a much closer target for China to wipe them clean!

  • Thane of Whiterun||

    1. Based on the THEYTERKOURJERBS rhetoric you hear stateside about China, I think that if the powers that be wanted to wage war against China, it would (unfortunately) be a pretty easy sell to the public, especially under current economic conditions.

    2. I think that in this fashion, our (non-MIC) corporate overlords are thus actually our last, best hope against a Sino-American war; they don't want their supply chains disrupted.

    2a. If Japan and China get into a "serious" war with each other, those supply chains will be fucked anyway, and we will no doubt get involved against China.

    3. I suspect there is an attitude among some strategists and pols that we're going to get to blows with China eventually (if not over this then over some of the other disputes DJF mentioned, especially Taiwan/ROC), so we might as well get it over with while we still have many advantages over them.

    4. I really hope we don't go to war with China; otherwise, how will I get with Chinese girls?

  • CE||

    The same way American troops did in Vietnam, or Captain Corelli did with his mandolin.

  • ||

    I really hope we don't go to war with China; otherwise, how will I get with Chinese girls?

    There are plenty of ethnic Chinese girls in the U.S. and outside China.

  • Thane of Whiterun||

    Oh I'm fully aware. I know quite a few of them (male and female).

    The issue is nationalism and the tensions that would arise (even if they don't give a shit, many of their parents probably would).

  • Gannicus||

    If we went to war with China, wouldn't they lose all of the US debt they own? I would imagine we would stop paying it back and declare it null and void. Is that possible?

    Also, imagine the anti-China sentiment that would develop in this country. People would basically boycott anything that came from China, providing them with another huge economic hit.

    War with the US seems like it would be too crippling for China economically.

  • Randian||

    On the plus side, we'd get to use the Stephen King-coined term "Head Panda" for the Premier of China, and won't that be fun?

  • CE||

    You know who else got upset when military planes flew over an island they claimed?

  • mad libertarian guy||

    It's fucking amazing how prescient video game writers can be.

    It's a great game too, if you're interested in military simulations rather than run and gun shooters. One map requires firing no shots. It's specifically a sneak around and find a target while you laser designate it for destruction. The game makes you pay for getting in to the wrong fight. Fucking great shit.

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