Ohe simmering dispute between China and Japan over control of the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea escalated sharply on Tuesday when U.S. aircraft entered airspace claimed by Beijing as its exclusive domain, with American and Japanese naval ships poised to offer up an even greater show of force on Wednesday. The trajectory of the conflict suggests both governments see domestic political gains to be had from the affair even if the significance of the islands themselves is up for some debate.
The new government under Chinese President Xi Jinping has been going tit-for-tat with Japanese P.M. Shinzo Abe, a conservative who has increased military spending and sought to steer domestic politics away from pacifism and the country toward taking on a more muscular role in the region. So now the two dominant Southeast Asian powers — traditional enemies who have avoided conflict in recent years as China has overtaken Japan as the East’s premier economy — are at it again, and the American military is playing along with Tokyo’s wishes. So long as the United States remains committed to Japanese national security (which Abe knows will be the case until he does something to alienate President Obama or the entire American foreign policy establishment), we can expect more fiery language and ominous warnings, but zilch in the way of actual combat.
But that doesn’t render this exchange of threatening messages meaningless. On the contrary, the escalation should provide a nice boost domestically for Abe by validating his longstanding concerns about Japan’s tiny army and dependence on the West for protection. There’s no better illustration to the public at large of the dangers posed than the Chinese unilaterally seizing vast swaths of neighboring airspace, impacting both cargo and passenger flights. Abe will now be able to make both an economic and security case for beefing up the national defense infrastructure, one his opponents in the center and on the left will not be able to dismiss as paranoia — or at least not so easily as they might have last week.
As for the Chinese, this kind of foreign-policy bluster seems to be par for the course whenever a Communist regime sees some turnover (recall that North Korea began to spook Seoul and the West with talk of epic conflict after Kim Jong Un took control in late 2011). It works just fine for Xi, as the territory gains make sense in light of the Communist Party’s Third Plenum and its emphasis on centralizing state power. The Senkaku dispute is a one battle in the fight between Japan and China; true, the islands have some strategic-economic value, but the real object here is power projection. Neither government has shown any hint of giving way, and so long as both Xi and Abe believe the tension is benefiting them politically, neither will relent.