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Could China-Japan Dispute Over Tiny Islands Cause World War Three?

Thursday, December 27, 2012 | 5:11 PM

Chinese pilots and Jian-10 fighters (photo: Xinhua)
Dec. 27, 2012 - Will the tensions between Iran and Israel trigger World War Three? Many would bet on, and it is certainly an obvious situation that is ripe for military conflict. But some experts think an argument between China and Japan is a more likely scenario, one that could trigger another world war.

The China-Japan dispute over three seemingly unimportant islands is not getting the attention it deserves. Professor Hugh White of National University in Australia, a defense expert, has made news this week by writing that the disagreement over the islands could cause Japan and China to stumble into full-blown shooting war with each other. He says the United States, and possibly other nations, would probably get sucked into the fight. (More about Prof. White below.)

Japan says "Senkaku" but China says "Diaoyu."
Both nations say "hands off."
Both Japan and China are making provocative and self-serving statements for all of the usual reasons: Propaganda, bluster, and national pride. While the Chinese government says that today's "harassment" by Japan "was meant to escalate the situation," China itself has been doing its best to rathet up the tension as well. Back in August, Chinese citizens were whipped into a frenzy of nationalistic furor over the dispute, rioting in some cities after Japanese activists landed on one of the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo (see video report). A survey showed that 87 percent of Chinese citizens have a negative opinion of Japan at the end of 2012, up from 65.9% in 2011.

The disputed islands are called "Senkaku" by Japan and "Diaoyu" by China.  The islands are in the East China Sea (see map), and are also claimed by Taiwan. They are tiny, but are on a strategically important shipping route. In addition, however, the tiny islands sit atop large deposits of hydrocarbon petroleum and natural gas, discovered in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, that's when China and Taiwan began claiming the little islands.

Japan has long claimed that it has controlled the islands from 1895 until surrendered to the U.S. in 1945, at the end of World War II. The U.S. controlled the islands until 1972, when it returned them to Japan’s control. China, however, claims to have discovered the islands in the 14th century and to have controlled them since then.

Today, China is accusing Japan of deliberately trying to escalate the already tense situation:
A Chinese government spokesman Thursday [Dec. 27] said a maritime surveillance plane was harassed by Japanese military aircraft while patrolling the airspace near the disputed Diaoyu islands," reports TwoCircles.com. "Shi Qingfeng, spokesman for the State Oceanic Administration, said Japan's action was meant to escalate the situation and it should bear the consequences, Xinhua reported. Shi said the Chinese plane was conducting a routine patrol in the airspace over the East China Sea about 150 km from the Diaoyu islands. He said the flight route used by the Chinese plane has been used by Chinese surveillance aircraft since 2007. "The Japanese side's disturbance was intended to cause confusion and distort the truth," he said.
Harbin Y-12, Chinese surveillance aircraft
For months, both China and Japan have been conducting military exercises near and over the islands, often getting uncomfortably close to each other. God forbid there is an accident or misunderstanding.

Earlier this week, says International Business Times (IBT), "Japanese and Chinese military made contact near the disputed islands. The Y-12, a Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft that was cruising around the disputed territories, was intercepted by several Japanese Air Self-Defense forces."

"Up to eight F-15 jets were scramble by the JASDF (Japan Air Self Defense Force) in the morning of Dec. 13 (02.00 GMT – 11.00 LT)," reported The Aviationist, "after a Chinese Harbin Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft skirted one of the disputed islands in the East China Sea." Japan said China was violating its airspace. China, however, considers that to be their own airspace.

PROF. HUGH WHITE, "THIS IS HOW WARS USUALLY START"

Prof. Hugh White (see bio)
"Australian National University professor Hugh White," reports The Japan Daily Press, "also a former Australian defense official, believes that the recent violation of Japanese airspace by Chinese planes and Japan’s election of a new, nationalist-leaning prime minister are sure signs that the two Asian superpowers are heading to war within the next year. In an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, White writes that the tensions developing now between the two countries are the among the conditions that have led to war many times in history, even when conflict is in no one’s interest."

The U.S. could become embroiled in a China-Japan war because of "America's recent pivot to Asia, which has sought to increase its military presence in various parts of Asia, posing a threat to China," says IBT. "In return, China has pushed back against U.S. pressure. China's formidable military developments, including a new fighter jet and aircraft carrier, has both Japan and the U.S. anxious."

Prof. White, says The Japan Daily Press, "feels that China is attempting to challenge the U.S. and President Barack Obama’s 'pivot to Asia,' itself a response to China’s growing power and territorial claims in the region. He believes that the tit-for-tat dispute over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea is what inevitably leads to someone opening fire."

THE OBAMA "PIVOT"

By "Obama's pivot," Prof. White was referring to the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” from the Middle East to East Asia.

Prof. White wrote that warning in a column that was published by The Sydney Morning Herald on Dec. 26. It's ominous title was "Caught in a bind that threatens an Asian war nobody wants." The column start with, "THIS is how wars usually start: with a steadily escalating stand-off over something intrinsically worthless. So don't be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China next year over the uninhabited rocks that Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyu islands. And don't assume the war would be contained and short."

The vision of a China-Japan shooting war is not some lone, crazy vision held only by Prof. White. Many are worried about it, actually, as indicated by a Dec. 17 article at CurrentIntelligence.net (with my emphasis added):
As tensions persist between China and Japan over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, the United States faces the almost impossible task of simultaneously reassuring and constraining its regional allies, while ensuring that it does not escalate its own tensions with Beijing. On one level it is hard to see how China and Japan could become so consumed over a small set of remote islands and it remains unclear how serious the crisis is. Yet, over the past several months, Chinese and Japanese ships have been patrolling the same waters with both laying territorial claims to the area.  And, earlier this fall, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the escalating tensions and close proximity of Chinese and Japanese vessels could lead to some triggering event and conflict.
Video Below: Professor Hugh White's speech entitled 'Abandon the Alliance? How China's rise will shape Australia's future'." Related articles listed below.



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