The Sino-Japanese dispute puts Australia’s problems in perspective

EPA/Hitoshi Maeshiro

If you think we have problems with the neighbours, spare a thought for China and Japan. The intractable nature of their territorial disputes, combined with the depth of animosity between the two governments and peoples, makes our current spat with Indonesia look like the proverbial storm in a diplomatic tea cup — which is probably what it will ultimately prove to be.

By contrast, the growing tensions between China and Japan are an increasingly real threat to the security of the entire region, to say nothing of the global economy.

China’s recent decision to create what it calls an “air defence identification zone” is but the latest in series of incidents and initiatives that are designed reinforce the competing claims to an obscure and unremarkable group of islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. The significance of the latest move from China is firstly that it claims that the disputed islands should now be considered as part of China’s airspace. The second noteworthy feature of the latest Chinese initiative is that it was issued by the Ministry of National Defense.

Rather ominously, the defence spokesman who issued the new statement suggested that:

China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not co-operate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions.

Predictably enough, Japanese authorities were unimpressed and scrambled fighter jets in response.

These kinds of cat-and-mouse manoeuvres have been going on for months in the air above and on the seas around the disputed islands. Thus far it has amounted to little more than sabre-rattling and bluster as each side does what it can to push its claims and reassure an increasingly exercised domestic audience that it is standing up for the national interest. It is not necessary to decide whether such claims are valid to recognise the danger their unresolved, incompatible status poses.

It is hard to know whether this latest ratcheting up of regional tensions is part of a long-term, “grand strategy” on China’s part. It is quite possible that the air defence zone initiative may be a manifestation of policy freelancing on the part of an increasingly assertive Chinese defence establishment.

As our current difficulties with Indonesia remind us, even in a liberal democracy like Australia there is much that we do not know about the operations and policy calculations of our foreign and security services. This is even more the case in authoritarian China where an aversion to transparency is part of the political DNA of the ruling elite.

The prospects for a resolution of the current dispute between China and Japan also look far more difficult than Australia’s problems with Indonesia. Worryingly, the outcomes are far more consequential, too. Australia and Indonesia are never going to come to blows over the current dispute or any other for that matter.

In part, this is because Indonesia would find it rather difficult, even in the unlikely event that it seemed like a good idea. Like most of southeast Asia’s militaries, Indonesia’s armed forces have limited capabilities and have historically been a threat primarily to their own people. In part, it’s because Australia never gets involved in unnecessary conflicts - unless its fulfilling its perceived alliance obligations, of course.

Things are rather different in Northeast Asia. Both China and Japan are in the world’s top five military powers in terms of defense spending and although they are a long way behind the US, they both have fairly formidable capabilities. Despite the label, Japan’s “Self-Defence Force” also has significant and growing power projection capabilities. It could also become nuclear armed in short order should it feel the need to do so, of course.

EPA/Japan Coast Guard

No doubt many will view these observations as sensationalist scare-mongering. Let us hope this proves to be the case. However, the potential for miscalculation or accident are continually increasing as both sides commit more military assets to the region. The mid-air collision between a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter over Hainan Island in 2001 is a sobering reminder of how easily and unexpectedly such events can occur. In the case of China and Japan there may be even less time and political space for a rational, cool-headed calculation of appropriate policy responses.

Despite the greater distance, Australia is far from immune to events in northeast Asia. Indeed, in many ways, Northeast Asia is where the real geopolitical and geo-economic action is. Not only would regional trade relations experience significant collateral damage from even a relatively limited clash between China and Japan, but there is the very real prospect that the US would be dragged into, too.

This really is the nightmare scenario for Australia’s beleaguered foreign policymakers and security establishment. Not only would Australia be forced to choose between its principal strategic ally and its major trade partner, but it might face the prospect of having to decide whether to actually fight in Asia yet again. Getting relations with Indonesia back on track could come to seem like a doddle.