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.