The appropriate dispute, the unlikely conflict

The appropriate dispute, the unlikely conflict

While critical events in Asia are usually centered on well-known theaters of crisis (Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Korean peninsula, etc.), in the last few months, the attention of the international community has increasingly been focused on Northeast Asia, where an unusual Sino-Japanese effervescence, composed of nationalistic declarations, diplomatic friction and martial gesticulations fed by Beijing and Tokyo, is taking place.

In Europe, public opinion – not really aware of either the complicated historical relations or the trade links between China and Japan – started to be moved by the turn of events when TV networks showed Chinese, Japanese and even Taiwanese Navy vessels maneuver close to a miniscule and uninhabited archipelago (Diaoyu for Beijing, Senkaku for Tokyo) whose sovereignty is – to say the least – disputed by these Asian giants. Hitherto, China’s repeated warnings, the on-site visits of Japanese dignitaries, the recent nationalization of part of the archipelago by Tokyo, as well as the renewed calls for restraint originating from the outside world (especially from Washington), had only generated modest attention.

From concern to the fear of a deteriorating situation leading to a more serious scenario, editorialists and pessimistic defense experts were quick to detect the signs of a likely China-Japan conflict. An assessment, fortunately simplistic, that will deceive its candid promoters.

First of all, in this subtle northeastern Asian matrix built on rival ambitions, appearances and declarations do not necessarily translate into actions. But, if Beijing shouts so loudly, its domestic political agenda counts for something in this volatile equation. A delicate once-in-a-decade power transition is reaching its final stage in China; a moment not exactly favorable to presenting a weak visage to the largest demography on earth and to the rest of the world. In Tokyo, the domestic political context similarly weighs heavily on this interstate dispute. Tired after a succession of difficult domestic challenges to cope with (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster) and harassed by a political opposition avid to get back to power – whatever the national price and the regional costs – the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is not ready to die without fighting. With a general election scheduled for December, the stakes are high; matching the Chinese posture is a political necessity.

Even so, despite some appearances, neither Japanese nor Chinese authorities are willing to go beyond the current level of tension. Owners of the respective second- and third-largest economies in the world, China and Japan both have so much to lose if any sort of negative spiral of events develops. In political, economic and trade circles – maybe even in the hawkish military and ultranationalist spheres – everybody is dearly convinced of this obvious reality.

In 2011, Sino-Japanese trade reached a new high, totaling the $345 billion mark (a 14 percent rise on the previous mark). For China – whose GDP growth rate in 2012 is expected to be the weakest in years (around 7.5 percent) – Japan remains its first import and second export partner, particularly in this period of contraction in the world economy (i.e. in Europe). For Tokyo, the picture is even clearer: its economy was in recession in 2011 (minus 0.7 percent growth) and uncertainties remain about its short-term capabilities. China remains its first import and export partner. No one voluntarily sacrifices this kind of critical level of relationships just for small pieces of rocks (however rich in precious fisheries and energy resources they may be), even in the name of a sacred national pride. It doesn’t matter if more anti-Japanese rallies are staged in Chinese cities or if Japanese exports to China temporarily suffer an unwelcome significant fall.

In this area familiar with typhoons and severe weather, this impressive Sino-Japanese thunderstorm may still last for some time, but this tempest shall definitely not transform into a destructive tsunami that no one really wants to happen, in Beijing as well as in Tokyo.

Olivier Guillard is Asia research director for the Paris-based think tank Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS).