Several commentators have noticed that the Chinese-Japanese confrontation over the Senkaku Islands, exacerbated by a recent Chinese declaration of an air defense zone that includes the airspace over the Senkakus, which is also part of a similar Japanese zone, offers echoes of the crisis of 1914. The danger now, as then, is that the parties will back into a conflict without intending to do so, but with no way out.
According to the December 4 New York Times, China is now de-escalating, announcing that the zone “will not affect the freedom of overflight, based on international law, of other countries’ aircraft.” That may reflect preparation for Vice President Biden’s visit to Beijing, but I suspect it is based more on China’s timely realization that the situation could soon get out of hand, a lá 1914. That would be in no one’s interest, including China’s.
The US has not handled the crisis well to date. Our overriding interest, trumping all other considerations, is avoiding a war with China—or any other war, given our recent expensive military failures. Regrettably Washington has made it clear that it will stand with Japan, and that it regards the Senkakus as covered by the US-Japanese defense agreement. That leaves us a few errors by China, Japan, or both away from involvement in a war. We would have been wiser to restrain China by saying any attack on Japanese ships or aircraft would involve US forces, but at the same time to restrain Japan by saying the US would not go to war for the islands themselves.
That opportunity having been missed, which should we do now? The question has two answers; one tactical, one strategic. Tactically, given that our objective is to avoid war, we should propose putting the Senkakus under an international mandate—leaving their administration to, say, Sweden—for 50 or 100 years, thus kicking the can so far down the road we’re never likely to see it again. The Chinese, who are trying to establish a very shaky claim, might accept this, because it would undermine Japan’s position that there is no issue: the islands are Japanese. Japan would reject it, unless we could enable the Japanese to save face. How to do that? My proposal would be that we add an uninhabited American rock to the mandate, say, one of the many in the Aleutians. We wouldn’t miss it, and the Swedes would feel right at home. I can see Bismarck smiling at the idea.
Strategically, the 1914-style threat posed by the snit over the Senkakus points to a larger reality: our current position in east Asia has no strategic logic. We have enmeshed ourselves in two quarrels, or perhaps two-and-a-half, where we have no major interests at stake, yet where we could find ourselves in major wars. The first is the stand-off between North and South Korea, the second is the enmity between China and Japan, and the half is the fact that not only do the Chinese hate the Japanese, so do the Koreans, North and South.
The North-South Korean war—there still is no peace treaty, only an armistice—lost all strategic meaning for the United States the day communism fell in the former Soviet Union and the Cold War ended. Who controls Korea is important to Japan, Russia, and presumably the Koreans themselves. It has no more significance for American interests than who controls Bora-Bora. We have this wonderful thing called an ocean between us and them.
The same logic applies to North Korea’s nukes. If we were not involved in affairs on the Korean peninsula, there would be no reason for North Korea to target us. There is little reason in any case, since winging a highly unreliable North Korean rocket our way would result in the quick extinction of North Korea. It is still in our interest to remove what small incentive might be there. More likely is the ugly possibility that events on the Korean peninsula could involve us in another expensive land war. Again, who controls post-Cold War Korea has no strategic significance for the United States. Korea is not worth the bones of a single American grenadier.
We have equally little at stake in what is going to be a long feud between Japan and China, one that at some point will almost certainly result in war. Each party views the other both as a threat and with contempt, historic attitudes that go back centuries. Our alliance with Japan, like so many of our other alliances, benefits only Japan. Without it, she would have to go nuclear. That is a problem for China, Russia, and Korea, but not us. Our overriding interest in a Sino-Japanese war is staying out of it. That means the Japanese alliance is a net debit for the United States, one we should liquidate in an orderly manner.
The half-conflict is between Korea, North and South, and Japan. It may surprise Americans to say so, but this other ancient enmity is also likely to result in war at some point. The aggressor is more likely Korea than Japan—again, North Korea, South Korea, or both (it is the one cause in which the two could happily join). The South Korean Air Force and, especially, Navy are designed more for war with Japan than with North Korea. That is not by accident. All Koreans relish the idea of a war with Japan. It will be only the latest when it comes, in a line that goes back centuries. Only Americans think they can ignore or undo historic hates, an illusion that all too often leaves us caught up in them.
The reason an assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 led to world war is that other European powers, especially but not exclusively Russia, had involved themselves in the Balkans unnecessarily and in ways that contradicted their main interest, which was preserving peace in Europe. The Danube should have formed a fire wall with Balkan wars left to be Balkan wars only. The Pacific should form a similar fire wall for the United States today. Wars are coming in Asia, probably the last major wars among state militaries. Our position should be that of an observer of historical tableaux vivant, not a participant in them.