Michael Green is Senior Vice President for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a Professor at Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
As Tokyo and Beijing exchange warnings over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, commentators are increasingly evoking August 1914 and urging action from the international community to defuse the situation.
To be sure, the chances of an accidental confrontation in the troubled East China Sea have gone up rather than down, and crisis avoidance should be one of the highest priorities for US policy. But it is not the only priority.
The current Sino-Japanese stand-off touches on two other important US interests: maintaining the integrity of the offshore island chain in the western Pacific and ensuring that Beijing sees decreasing utility in the use of coercion to resolve regional disputes. A poorly conceived rush to de-escalate the stand-off between Tokyo and Beijing could actually be counterproductive in this larger geostrategic context.
The first thing to recognise is that the leadership in both Beijing and Tokyo do not see a lasting resolution to the underlying geostrategic factors driving the two countries’ confrontation. And for the next 5-10 years they will be right.
Beijing seeks to expand rather than limit its denial capabilities and eventual control over the 'Near Sea' (encompassing both the South China and East China Seas). Japan is equally determined not to lose control and has tacit or explicit backing from the other maritime states under pressure, including the Philippines and Vietnam – and Washington and Canberra (though some senior officials on the US side seem not to have read the memo and occasionally lapse into describing the problem as purely one of ecumenical crisis management).
The near-term goal should therefore be to find enough space for diplomacy to begin to take hold and confidence-building measures to come into effect.
At first blush, it would seem that Japan should take the first step by acknowledging that there is a dispute (Tokyo's formal position is that the islands are under Japan's undisputed control), but this would be counterproductive and Prime Minister Abe knows it. Since 2008, Beijing has been trying to undermine the credibility of Japan’s administrative control of the islands by dispatching maritime patrol boats ('white hulls') near the islands on daily probes and into Japan’s claimed territory several times a month, always backed by PLA Navy surface action groups over the horizon and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force destroyers waiting on the other side.
De facto, Japan and China have a dispute, but conceding this de jure would validate China’s use of coercive pressure and teach Beijing all the wrong lessons. Senior officials in Tokyo have considered taking the step of inviting China to take its claim to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), an invitation which they are confident Beijing would reject. However, expressing readiness for adjudication would represent a de jure acknowledgment of the dispute (if not precisely the kind Beijing wants) and Tokyo would need a comparable face-saving gesture from China. The most likely step would be for China to reduce (reciprocally with Japan) its operational tempo near the islands.
The problem is that Tokyo knows what happened in the Philippines when the Obama Administration brokered a similar separation of forces around the Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese side promptly violated, shutting Philippine fisherman out of waters their families had been harvesting for generations. Sending third party navies to monitor the separation of forces would also be problematic because internationalising the problem is precisely what Beijing hopes to do in order to undermine Japan’s administrative control.
So the bottom-line is that the rest of the region should be careful to avoid solutions that reward Beijing for using coercion. This is a time for strategic patience, not panic.
Meanwhile, the interactions between Tokyo and Beijing are far more measured and calibrated than most observers from afar realise. The two navies are in regular ship-to-ship communication now (though not the coast guards yet); the foreign ministries have quiet channels; and academics are engaging in forward-looking bilateral second track meetings. The Chinese assume that Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty would come into effect in a real clash and will steer well short of that line, seeing what they can do to undermine Japan’s position without triggering a major US response.
Xi is not ready to give Abe a summit, and Abe does not want a summit so badly that he will unilaterally concede to China’s demands on the Senkakus/Diaoyutais to get one. But politics matter. Abe triumphed in Japan’s upper house election in July and the Chinese know he will be around for a while. Meanwhile, Xi still has to get through the Communist Party plenum next month.
A summit will happen when Xi realises coercion won’t work and both leaders are ready for a face-saving formula. My guess is that the formula will involve tacit parallel moves in which Japan invites China to go to the ICJ and the Chinese quietly reduce their operational tempo and agree to extend confidence-building measures to the white hulls – all in the context of a summit meeting. But that won’t happen until Beijing realises that the international community backs Japan in opposing China's use of coercive pressure as the main instrument in its kit.