November 20th, 2012
11:53 AM ET

Could U.S. get sucked into China-Japan conflict?

By Global Public Square

For more What in the World watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS" this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.

If history is any guide, second terms are often disrupted by a foreign policy crisis. It's easy to see how that might happen over the next four years with Iran or Syria.

But, there is a distinct possibility that the next big foreign policy crisis will take place somewhere else, perhaps thousands of miles away, in Asian waters, over five islets and three barren rocks – all uninhabited except for a few feral goats.

For months now, Chinese and Japanese naval forces have been confronting each other in the East China Seas. Both countries claim a set of tiny islands. The Japanese call them the Senkaku Islands. The Chinese, the Diaoyus. The dispute involves energy – there are immense amounts of natural gas under the East China Seas – but above all it involves politics and history.

Asia’s greatest geopolitical problem is that its two great powers – the two largest economies and militaries – have an unresolved, bitter relationship.

More from CNN: Behind the island dispute

China and Japan have never had to occupy the global stage as equals. One has always dominated the other. For most of the past 500 years, China was the region's hegemon and Japan accepted its role as a distant satellite of the great Chinese empire. That changes in the late 19th century as Japan became the first Asian country to modernize its economy and society and “catch up” with the West.

After the Meiji Reformation, Japan’s military strength grew, and in 1895, it defeated Qing dynasty China. One of the consequences of the war was that Tokyo formally annexed the Senkaku islands, but their sovereignty has been in dispute for the last 40 years with China asserting its historic claims and Japan its modern possession.

Over the past two months, both countries have acted in ways that could easily spiral out of control towards conflict. The result has been frequent encounters between Japanese and Chinese ships as they patrol these waters and riots and protests within both countries – with the populations in each getting more nationalist. And, there have been few efforts by either government to defuse the situation and move towards a diplomatic solution.

The United States gets involved because it is bound by treaty to come to Japan’s aid, and Washington has confirmed that the Senkaku islands are covered by this obligation. In other words, if one of these naval encounters goes awry and China and Japan get into a conflict, the United States of America could well find itself involved in an Asian war.

More from GPS: Choosing sides in the East China Sea

I realize that this sounds far-fetched, but given the extremely bad relations between China and Japan, it’s possible that honor, pride, miscalculation and accident could lead us there. And remember, we are in the midst of an enormous leadership change in China. One that is far more significant than this month’s election in the United States.

We now know the identity of China’s new president: Xi Jinping. He faces some major challenges. China’s growth is slowing and it needs a new kind of economic development. Its political system needs to be reformed, at the very least tackling corruption, but perhaps more radical changes are needed.

Finally, Xi will have to find a way for China’s rise to take place without unsettling its neighbors – and maintaining a cooperative relationship at the same time with the United States. It all makes President Obama's job seem a lot easier by comparison.

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Topics: Asia • China • Conflict • GPS Show • Japan • United States • What in the World?

soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. krehator

    Neither one has been good for jobs...

    November 27, 2012 at 2:43 am | Reply
  2. USN Ret.

    Soundlogic: That post is one of the best yet.
    Peace is maintained by those who prepare for war but pray for peace. Only a few pray for war and they receive some gain from it. A true warrior prays for peace but is willing to defend his country and home when needed. In 20 years of service I never meet one man or woman who asked for war. They were ready if it came and were willing to pay the price like the wonderful men and women are doing today.
    May God guide them!

    November 28, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
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