In the event of a conflict between China and Japan, it’s hard to think of a country that would be more exposed than Australia. Yet several leading defence scholars have warned that this prospect is receiving little attention from policy-makers and academics, and Australia is in denial about the risks.
Defence specialist and consultant Ross Babbage says the radar lock incident, where a Chinese ship used missile radar to lock in on both a Japanese ship and a Japanese helicopter, was an enormously significant warning of the prospect of a conflict erupting that would affect Australia.
“We are facing the prospect over the next 30 years of having a major power on our doorstep,” he says. “The Chinese have twice lit up fire-control radar on Japanese assets in very dangerous situations. The prospect of us being drawn into a conflict is not low.
“We would likely be drawn in because of what the US is already doing here and how enmeshed our forces are. There’s a serious risk of conflict, and when it happens it’s going to be hard for us to be aloof from it.”
Experts tend to agree that the most likely flashpoint for such a conflict is the Senkakus, a place where the interests of Asia’s two biggest powers, and those of the US, all rub up against one another.
Defence scholar Alan Dupont is one of several specialists who believe that it is a matter of when – not if – the next incident off the Senkakus will occur.
“I just don’t see how it can be avoided,” the University of NSW security specialist says.
Dupont was recently in Tokyo to attend the eighth Australia-Japan Conference, which featured a significant security dialogue for the first time in its 12-year history. Like others in his field, he believes the risks of a China-Japan conflict are increasing and this is poorly understood in Australia, even though it could have devastating economic, and even military, consequences.
“It’s not being thought about at all,” Dupont tells Inquirer. “A lot of Australians are still in denial. Even inside the Canberra beltway, I don’t think the possibility of conflict between China and Japan over the Senkakus has been given sufficient consideration.”
He explains how a serious eruption in the Senkakus – rated by many as the most dangerous territorial hot spot in the world – would play out.
The islands are controlled by Japan, but China has since last September been mounting a series of incursions with fisheries patrol boats into the territorial waters that extend for 12 nautical miles around them. Its aim is to pry the islands loose from Japan’s grasp, or at the very least get Japan to acknowledge their ownership is disputed. Neither side is willing to give ground, and there seems little chance, for now, of defusing tensions or establishing protocols to prevent an incident leading to a wider conflict, let alone resolving the issue.
Dupont ranks possible incidents (in ascending order of seriousness) as: a Chinese naval vessel entering the 12 nautical mile zone around the Senkakus; another fire-control radar incident; a serious collision between Chinese and Japanese vessels; the firing of warning shots and an exchange of fire between Japanese and Chinese naval ships. He says the list could also include an attempt by either side to seize and garrison the islands, leading to a “Falklands-like” situation.
Without a hotline between the two countries, and amid fractured diplomatic relations, it would be hard to contain any incident. He says a collision, even one that leads to the loss of a few lives, might be manageable without a conflict breaking out, but anything more serious could lead to retaliatory attacks from either side.
“If there is a serious incident at sea, or in the air, the risk is that it will be all over the newspapers before either government has had time to fully consider their response. Then nationalism will come into play and politicians will struggle to contain popular outrage and respond rationally.” Dupont says.
“It appears to be the Chinese who are pushing the envelope. I don’t think the Chinese government has really thought through the consequences of armed confrontation with Japan, and that is one reason the US has become increasingly alarmed about the risk of escalation.
“It would take a couple of hours for pictures to be available, but after that you would have riots in China if it was a Japanese strike. The Chinese government is not going to be able to control the outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) could exploit that sentiment.
“If Japanese lives were lost, the slow movement away from Japan’s post-World War II pacifism would accelerate, allowing the Abe government to substantially increase defence spending, potentially triggering a dangerous arms race in northeast Asia.
“Either way there would be global repercussions, including a major stock market correction. The nightmare scenario would be a major armed conflict between Japan and China, which would be devastating.”
Under the terms of the treaty between the US and Japan, the US is obliged to defend an attack on Japanese soil – including the Senkakus – and would thus likely be drawn into any battle, even if it were as a mediator initially.
Dupont says that as a US ally, Australia would be under considerable pressure to support Japan, although many will argue that we should not become involved or side with Japan because of our strong trading relationship with China. But our response would be primarily shaped by facts on the ground.
“Let’s say the Chinese suddenly seized the Senkakus militarily without provocation. In that circumstance we would have little choice but to condemn China’s action.” he says. “But in all likelihood it would be far from clear who had initiated hostilities and there would be a great deal of ambiguity and finger pointing by both sides. Australia would be reluctant to publicly side with Japan unless there was a clear-cut act of Chinese aggression.”
Irrespective of whether Australia would be called on for military support, Dupont says any conflict between our two biggest trading partners would be economically damaging: “It doesn’t mean we couldn’t keep exporting iron ore to Japan or China, but the risk premiums for doing so would soar.”
In recent weeks tensions around the Senkakus appear to have cooled slightly.
But the underlying dispute that erupted with Japan’s decision to purchase them from their private owner in September has not gone away and both sides continue to feel each other out. China’s geographical survey agency recently revealed it planned to send surveyors to land on the islands – a measure that would almost certainly be blocked by Japan.
Japan and the US, meanwhile, have begun drafting plans to deal with a Senkakus incident, including ways to retake the islands in the event of their capture by China.
The islands sit between Okinawa and Taiwan. Although there is a large gas field underneath them, which China and Japan planned to develop together in happier times, their importance appears to be more strategic, given their location in the middle of increasingly assertive China’s gateway to the Pacific.
As for what happens next, that’s anyone’s guess.
Japan is bound by a pacifist constitution, but after an upper house election, Shinzo Abe hopes to begin efforts to change the constitution to better position Japan for the hostile environment in which it finds itself.
That’s unlikely to go down well in Beijing, where the official stance on the radar lock incident is that it didn’t happen.
John Lee, a China scholar from the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies, says intelligence sources have told him the incident was the work of an ill-disciplined PLA skipper rather than an action directly sanctioned by Beijing.
But he says this gives little cause for relief as it highlights the “cowboy behaviour” of the PLA and the uncertainty over the chain of command and communications between the Chinese Communist Party and the military.
Lee says he also believes some kind of conflict or flare-up over the Senkakus is highly likely – although a large-scale war is unlikely because it is not in the interests of the US, China or Japan.
“I am pretty pessimistic about the chances of avoiding a scenario where you have shots fired in anger there in the next few years,” he says. “When it comes to warning shots, I’d say it’s almost certain it will happen. In terms of shots hitting an actual (military) asset – the chances are high enough for governments to have to plan for that contingency.”
Neither Tokyo nor Beijing has left much room to back down in the event that a conflict breaks out, and there is a risk that tit-for-tat retaliation could continue, he says.
But even in the event of a protracted war, Lee says Australia would be unlikely to be asked to send troops or equipment, although it would still be involved through its provision of intelligence and support to the US.
“Any time the US is involved in a conflict in East Asia, Australia is involved too, because we host some of the US network,” he says.
Lee says that although China would be pressing Australia behind the scenes not to do anything to aid the US or Japan, it would be pragmatic enough not to consider Australia a combatant.
He says supplies of iron ore and liquefied natural gas – two of Australia’s top export earners – to China and Japan – two of Australia’s top export earners – would likely continue at a reduced pace, although the risks in shipping these commodities would climb.
“If it was a longer, protracted war, it would severely impact the Australian economy because you would not have the same amount of shipping going through the East China Sea and that would impact on Australian exports.”
This sort of talk is a long way from the rosy picture of unfettered prosperity detailed in the Gillard government’s Asian Century white paper.
Alternative perspectives that factor in the prospect of a Sino-Japanese conflict or instability are now being considered within the bureaucracy and academia, even if politicians and the broader public are operating under a more benign set of assumptions.Source: The Australian – Canberra is too complacent about the prospect of Sino-Japanese hostilities
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- 3 Chinese vessels enter Japan’s territorial waters around Senkakus (english.kyodonews.jp)
- Senkaku row prompts China to demand postponement of summit with Japan, South Korea: sources (japantimes.co.jp)
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