China and US: War?

The Brian Lehrer Show

December 19, 2012
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Brian recently visited China on a trip for journalists sponsored by the Committee Of 100. He and his fellow travelers will be posting reflections on the blog over the next week. Here Jonathan Tepperman of Foreign Affairs follows up on a conversation with Brian on air.

When last we spoke, I tried to sound an optimistic note and explain why, despite the warning signs — like China and Japan’s recent squabbling over the ownership of the Senkakau/Diaoyu islands — I think the chances of a real-live shooting war between Beijing and Washington (Tokyo’s sworn protector) remain small.

Since then, events in the region have conspired to make me look bad.

The same day I came on your radio show, North Korea, China’s cosseted client state, conducted another missile test despite threats and howls of protest from Seoul and Washington. Then, the next morning, China sent a surveillance plane into the airspace above the disputed islands — prompting Tokyo to scramble F-15 fighter jets in response.

On the surface, these provocations seem to have brought the region closer to war. Direct relations between Beijing and Washington may be fairly calm at the moment, but the United States is treaty-bound to defend both South Korea and Japan should they be threatened militarily — should anyone doubt this commitment, Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, reaffirmed it the day of China’s air incursion.

Making matters worse is still one other factor we didn’t mention on Wednesday. All the players in this high-stakes game — China, the United States, Japan, and both Koreas — have recently changed leaders. Political transitions can be tense and fragile moments at the best of times. New leaders may respond unpredictably to provocation, especially when, as in the case of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, they’ve got something to prove or, in the case of Japan’s Shinzo Abe, they’re known nationalists who criticized their predecessors for being weak.

And yet: I still think it’s too soon to despair. Call me stubborn, but I’ve got three reasons why, despite appearances, I’m confident no one in the region will come to blows.

Reason number one: a close reading of history, whether in Chinese or English, suggests that new actually leaders try very hard to carefully avoid doing anything dramatic on foreign policy in their first year or so of office. North Korea’s Lil’ Kim is the outlier here; expect Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, and even the reelected Barack Obama to spend the next twelve months or so focused inward, not outward, on striking domestic deals and consolidating their power base. The last thing any of them want is to be sucked into a foreign adventure.

Reason number two: war is bad for business. We discussed this on Wednesday but it bears restating. Neither China, Japan, nor the United States could afford a war. The bilateral business relationships between these three economic superpowers are so tight, and their shared trade volumes are so enormous, that all three are likely to avoid doing anything to disrupt them. Already there are signs that the Sino-Japanese bickering is hurting both countries’ bottom lines. Recent Chinese boycotts of Japanese goods may have cost Japan money. But they’ve also rebounded in a nasty way, since most low-cost Japanese goods happen to be manufactured in — wait for it — China. Every time nationalist Chinese take to the streets, nervous Japanese firms relocate another assembly plants to a different low-cost country in the region.

Even North Korea has powerful motivation to avoid letting things get out of hand (this is my reason number three). While it’s a toss-up who’d win a naval confrontation between China and Japan (despite its pacifist constitution and smaller population, Japan has one of the most sophisticated fleets in the world), everybody, including Kim, knows what would happen should he go to war with the South or its American backer: his regime would be wiped out. Kim, like his dad, may seem unhinged at times, but he’s done nothing to suggest he’s suicidal.

Of course, there are no guarantees in foreign policy. Close trade partners have gone to war in the past (see the War of 1812 or World War I), though such examples are rare. Both China and Japan, furthermore, are beset by rising nationalism, which could force their government’s hands. Finally, every time countries do something provocative like lob a missile into the atmosphere or send a plane where it doesn’t belong, it increases the risk of a mistake — and big wars have started over small missteps before.

But I’m betting that cooler heads will prevail. Expect a lot of tough talk, but not much walking the walk, in the months ahead.