If the China Sea conflict goes hot, the Japan/China dispute over the Senkaku Islands has the greatest chance of being the flashpoint. The reasoning is very simple.
- China is actively challenging Japan’s claims.
- At present, Japan has naval superiority over China.
- Japan is close enough to the disputed islands to efficiently project force.
- From a previous position of almost national pacifism, Japan has moved towards wider doctrinal use of military force.
- Vietnam, the only other country in the area with a strong military and a temperament to match, shares a land border with China. This means that China can easily project force to Vietnam. This last occurred in 1979. Some have remarked that the poor performance of the Chinese military in that war would cause China to hesitate. But adequacy of force would not be significant to the decision, or to the deterrence.
- With falling population, Japan’s time horizon is limited.
The Atlantic article notes that Article 9 of the constitution of Japan, drafted under the supervision of General Douglas MacArthur, remains on the books, if not in force. Nor does the new law actually increase the legality of defending the Senkakus, already permitted by Article 9. The importance of the new law is as a trend of thought. Supporters might question the point of it if the Senkakus were not defended.
In China’s history, declarations of dominance over a vassal have tended to have a symbolic nature. China’s leaders have reason to believe that over time, with the collapse of Japan’s population and the growth of China’s military, the balance of power will shift in their direction. Although militarist sentiment is growing, there still remains some attachment to the cautious counsel of the departed elders. This internal conflict will grow.
But Japan’s hourglass is emptying. Once before, we have seen Japan strike with massive force, and the motive was desperation. This time, if the event occurs, it will hardly be massive. But it would shock China by contradiction of the Nine Dotted Line with a “fact on the ground.”
Both China and Japan support their claims with legal fictions. If one realizes their fiction concretely, the other faces the terrible compulsions of nationalism and patriotism. A China economic collapse, severe enough to stoke political instability, could motivate Chinese seizure of the islands.
After easy money has been tried, a “patriotic struggle” is the traditional band-aid for political instability.