Now China is taking on Japan too; is the army’s influence growing?

Xi Jinping has made all the right noises, but he is the first civilian leader in recent times to have direct military links. The initiative for the strong positions China has taken against its neighbours must have come from its military leaders.

Published: 12th January 2013 11:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 17th May 2013 10:40 AM   |  A+A-

Will the confrontation developing in the waters off China engulf us all? There is an explosive situation between China and Japan, an adversarial situation between China and Vietnam, an unfriendly situation between China and the Philippines and a prickly situation between China and Indonesia. The unhappy situation between China and India of course remains live.

From the Chinese point of view, the Philippines and Indonesia are ignorable because they pose no military challenge. India is ignorable too because China has completed the build-up of modern road, rail and airbase facilities on its side of the border while India is still resolving budgetary details, jurisdictional arguments and procurement bottlenecks. China knows that India will/can do nothing except wait for the next round of talks and then the next.

But Vietnam is no such push-over as China knows only too well. The end of the liberation war in 1975 found Vietnam half destroyed and tired. But look at the sequence of events. In December 1978, Cambodia militarily attacks Vietnam. In the next month, January 1979, Vietnam destroys Cambodia’s murderous Pol Pot regime and installs a friendly government there. In the next month, February 1979, China invades Vietnam across its 1,000-km  border. Vietnam drives back the 600,000-strong Chinese army. (A lesson for India?) This background of hostilities gives a sharp edge to China’s dispute with Vietnam over the Spratly islands.

More dangerous are the new turns in China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands. True, Japan was a defeated nation and its economy nosedived in recent years. But the Japanese are the most resilient of all Asian peoples. The way they came out of the triple catastrophe of earthquake-tsunami-Fukushima nuclear leak in 2011 was incredible. Those who read John Hershey’s classic Hiroshima wouldn’t have been surprised.

But don’t forget the other side, the Kamikazee pilots who crashed their planes into enemy ships because, like all Japanese at the time, they considered the honour of their country more important than their lives. Even after the defeat, Japan’s military might never really disappeared. The post-war constitution barred them from having an offensive military. So they formed a defensive military called the Self Defence Force (SDF). It was lavishly funded and grew rapidly. The maritime SDF is listed among the world’s leading navies.

The expansion was tied to America’s policies. Rules were changed, for example, for the SDF to join American war efforts in  Iraq. In the Senkaku  dispute also, the US has an important role. Japan controlled the islands from the First Sino-Japanese war in the 1890s. (Chinese claims are based on presumed sovereignty before that war.) The US administered the islands during the world war. Naturally, the islands were included in the post-war US-Japan Security Treaty, thus obliging the US to support Japan in the event of any hostilities. Indeed, the US Congress passed a bill last month pledging to defend the islands against Chinese attacks.

So, is China ready to take on Japan and the US at once? The political background makes the crisis even more complex. Japan has just elected Shinzo Abe as its prime minister. Abe is known as a tough rightwing nationalist and Japanese voters no doubt thought that someone like him was needed to tackle an increasingly belligerent China. But Abe cannot ignore economics. China’s move to stop Japanese imports has already created recession fears in Japan.

China too is going through a leadership change. Newly elected Xi Jinping has made all the right noises, but he is the first civilian leader in recent times to have direct military links. The initiative must have come from China’s military leaders for the strong positions the country has lately taken against its neighbours. Chinese patrol ships have circled the Senkakus and its aircraft went into Japanese airspace last month, something that never happened before. The military seems intent on action to the point of provocation. The question, therefore, is whether the army will guide Xi Jinping or whether Xi will succeed in guiding the army. Or, are they both one? On the answer may well depend the peace of the world.

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