January 25th, 2013
03:58 PM ET

Can China, Japan avoid clash in 2013?

By Brian Klein, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Brian P. Klein is an economic consultant and former U.S. diplomat who was based in China. The views expressed are his own

In much of the world, the long curve of history continues dragging nations to the brink of conflict. Take Northeast Asia, where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and nearby resource rich waters, have become the latest potential flashpoint.

What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond a dispute over natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to fire warning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot, while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. has weighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan's administration of the area.

If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.

And neither side shows any signs of meaningful compromise with a hawkish Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s prime minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind, especially once any real shots are fired by the increasing number of naval ships and air force patrols. Similarly, if either country attempts to land on the islands domestic calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.

Further complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries, it was the undisputed hub of the region. But redressing past harm, either from early 20th Century unequal trade relations or Word War II remain a potent force in its foreign policy, a legacy Europe has managed to overcome. Enemy and ally alike integrated into NATO decades ago with Germany and Italy sitting alongside the U.S., Britain and France. Asia needs, but sorely lacks, an influential or even coherent regional security organization. Nothing of the sort exists or is planned.

There are, it is true, some small positive signs. Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial, which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And just today, Bloomberg reported that Xi was said by a Japanese envoy to be considering holding a summit to discuss the crisis.

So, for now at least, the lines of communication remain open while both sides try to rein in their more hawkish extremes. But space for rational discussion has been shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol, adding to the risk of a conflict that would have devastating results for the region and international trade.

Yet conflict has never been preordained. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus just forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities. Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets.

While the past should not be forgotten, neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that's a lesson not lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.

Post by:
Topics: Asia • China • Japan

soundoff (72 Responses)
  1. Chukwuemeka

    The leaders of this two states just came into power and part of their manifesto was control over the disputed islands. But, give them time to learn leadership skills and rolls and not a single shot would be fired. The tension would end amicably and a return to status quo would be observed. They both have a great deal to loose if the fight over the island all to the advantage of south Korea.

    January 25, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Reply
    • San Tron HonoH

      .

      打海戰是下策

      直接攻打東京是上策

      琉球群島必須收回

      .

      January 30, 2013 at 8:35 am | Reply
      • tomatoketchup

        凛风失败者

        February 10, 2013 at 11:32 am |
      • john smithington

        ching-chang-chong ching chang.

        May 2, 2013 at 9:46 am |
      • john Shobeck

        chang-ching chong chang?

        May 2, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Gonzo

      When big predators fight over a carcass in the Serengeti, the jackal always gets the piece of the action.

      February 10, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
      • Ernesto

        I AGREE

        March 26, 2013 at 9:12 am |
  2. PrettyTerminal

    Hey Brian Klein, use the word "hawkish" one more time! I contain my inner grammar-Nazi almost always, but writing this bad shames journalism.
    Let me write for CNN?

    January 25, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      You should have known by now that CNN hires kwok zucking kwok zuckers as writers to badmouth China.

      January 25, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Reply
    • Doumani

      You must really love yourself / inflated ego that is.

      January 27, 2013 at 12:21 am | Reply
  3. ace

    Chinese is merely using Senkaku incident to divert domestic massive dmestic unrest in 2012-13; but if this gets out of hands, Chinese regime may be toppled like Argentine did with Falklands

    January 27, 2013 at 3:44 am | Reply
    • jackinbox

      What massive unrest?

      January 28, 2013 at 11:16 am | Reply
    • dev_null

      Like Argentine did with Falklands? Come on, that is only your wishful thinking. First, China has never intended to invade any other country. All of the wars or battles since 1949 have been for its own territory claim. Secondly, China has never lost any war or battle since 1949. Finally, China's national policy has always been "you don't bother me, I don't bother you. But if you bother me, I will bother you back". Thanks.

      January 28, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Reply
      • s linde

        Ummm.....China went into North Korea to fight the Allies dork, only MacArthur wanted to cross the Yaloo and continue on, but it wasnt his decision, so it wasnt going to happen. The Chinese came into the war at the Invitation of the North Koreans, who were going to lose badly at that time and China felt they couldnt have a Democratic Government at its door step.

        January 28, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
      • Mike C

        Dev_Null–"China has only fought wars over their territorial claims since 1949"? Well...as S Linde pointed out, there was that little fracas in Korea 1950-1953. I'll give you the early 1960s war with India, and the Ussuri River dustups with the Soviet Union in the late 1960s as over territorial issues. I'll even give you the invasion and occupation of Tibet, though I suspect the majority of Tibetans would not regard their territory as Chinese. But in addition to the Korean War, have you forgotten the late 1970s incursion into Vietnam (where the Vietanamese cuffed them up pretty badly, having had recent experience against the US)? Furthermore, even the "only fights over territorial issues" philosophy can be pretty alarming for neighbors given that China seems to have territorial disputes with all of their neighbors except maybe Afghanistan and North Korea!

        January 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
      • BJ

        Mike, all you listed are territorial dispute related wars and conflicts but Korea War and Vietnam War if you read carefully what you wrote. For the latter two wars, those are Cold War conflicts, and China is on defense side only before it pushed US armies back into 38 degrees in Korea. Remember both Korea and Vietnam are at China's doorsteps and with presence of big US troops. Think about the cargo ship at Cuba, remember how JFK reacted?

        January 28, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
      • marc

        mike c – your list is not balanced. If you consider the time span and compare to lets say the US you'll see far shorter wartime and far less deaths and casualties. In fact the chinese have vigorously tried to settle territorial disputes and in fact have recently settled with Vietnam and Krygyzstan. (by the way china borders more countries than any other so to have settled ALL territorial disputes save India is quite a feat). They haven't warred with anyone in 30+ years and the last invasion of Vietnam was brief and probably done to remind the Vietnamese not to go beyond there takeover of Cambodia at that time. The current S. China Sea disputes is unfortunate of course but better classified as maritime disputes. And needless to say, no one or very few have died, a true pittance to the likes of what we've done in Iraq, etc.

        February 1, 2013 at 3:53 am |
      • Bfm

        So the Argentinian reference does match. Not sure what your point was...

        February 11, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • Maersk

      ace, you should worry about the fact that you will have to zuck Chinese kwoks for a living instead.

      January 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Reply
      • Asian man

        China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and got their ass kick badly. China claimed that they don't invade anyone, but look at Tibet, Spratly and Paracel Islands dispute with Vietnam, Scarborough rock in South China Sea with Phillipine and India. China tried to bully its neighbors! For an emerging Super Power, China behaves badly and lied to its people. The people of China are not stupid, they remembered the atrocity of Tianmen Square. No one trust the Chinese government and all of the Asian countries will unite with the USA to fight China.

        February 11, 2013 at 12:42 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Both China and J apan are keen on scaling down the territorial dispute. Indeed the belligerence on both sides might just as well be for domestic consumption to spark jingoistic hysteria, a means to distract the public from domestic issues, that need to be addressed urgently.

    January 28, 2013 at 6:58 am | Reply
    • Cheese Wonton

      Have you read what some Chinese generals are saying? They are warning the Australians not to support the US or provide US forces with access to Australia with a veiled threat of nuclear retaliation if they do. China's military is looking for a fight and their political class does not have complete control of their military.

      January 28, 2013 at 10:12 am | Reply
      • LOL

        Are you one of those Chinese generals? lol

        January 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
      • generalj

        I think it is the US of A does not have complete control of their military, which made them go around entire global and set fire everywhere.

        January 28, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
      • basman

        what are you on dude, CCP owns PLA lock stock and barrel, generals do as they are told in the PRC, there will never be a military coup in China.

        January 28, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  5. palintwit

    A growing number of us are convinced that Sarah Palin is the only one who can heal and re-unify our country. But first she must return to her motorhome and resume her cross country tour. She will have to visit cities both large and small, being careful to speak only to real Americans, dispensing her sage advice and folksy, homespun common sense solutions. We can be a great nation again if we all follow the "Palin Path".

    January 28, 2013 at 11:27 am | Reply
    • East of Eden

      lol

      January 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
      • Dick

        Ya thats real funny. She was govenor. What have you done in your life besides sit in your moms basement picking lint out of your belly button. Tool

        January 29, 2013 at 12:19 am |
  6. Jonny C

    China has territorial disputes with almost every single neighbor they have. We need a united front to shut these bullies down.

    January 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Reply
    • basman

      where do i sign up for the united front against the USA who are after all the biggest bullies on earth...

      you know this is why the USA is so dangerous. Because they believe they are righteous...nothing is more evil than when evil believes it is good. The Nazis believed they were good, they didn't wake up in the morning and say 'how can we be even more evil today than yesterday!' People just don't sat that...They believed they were righteous and so they took this to it's logical end point that if they were righteous then they would be willing to do anything (ANYTHING) in defense and pursuit of their righteousness and thus 'the ends justify the means'....Perhaps america will be wiser and realize it's the other way around 'the means justify the end' in other words if we use evil to achieve good the good is corrupted and destroyed...So in the real world this means that when we kill millions of Iraqis to bring them freedom and democracy of course those things will be corrupted in the process...

      January 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • ForFun

        Are you slow or just dumb? Tell me one super power that has not acted in such a way. I love your blame America first clause. How about you look up China's Tibetan issues and Russia's Chechnya conflicts. That's not even touching the surface. Americas hands aren't clean but neither are any other country, superpower or not. This is just the world we live in.

        January 28, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
      • BJ

        I do not think only US is allowed to have territorial disputes with other countries.

        January 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
      • afriendofbillw

        Texas to USA will be the Tibet to China.

        January 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
      • Jerry

        EVERY SIDE in a conflict is certain of their own righteousness going in but after the conflict has ended only one side has proven the righteousness of their cause: the winner. The winner is ALWAYS the righteous one 'cause the winner makes the rules and writes the histories. The vanquished lose any claim to righteousness because, if their cause truly were righteous, they would've won.

        Now, usually I dismiss the America bashers out of hand because most are simps and idiots but you have grazed one of my country's greatest failings: believing that our way is the right way for everyone else and other (often far older) cultures should conform to our ways or else. Yet we let them come here and stay without conforming while the government touts the empty word "multiculturalism" to show how inclusive and forward-thinking they are. Leave other countries alone, let 'em do what they do, let their governments do what their citizens will let them get away with and only speak-up (with a salvo of Tomahawks or a few 10s of tons of air-dropped munitions) when they screw with American citizens or American interests, (our allies, freedom of navigation, unequal or punitive trade practices, etc.) And make everyone who comes to our country adopt OUR ways, learn English within 2 years or GTFO. Then it's all sh!ts & giggles from there on.

        April 24, 2013 at 1:59 am |
      • Piperoz

        Why don't you go and work in a prisoner camp in China building Christmas lights and eating rats. Or clean their polluted environment. Or witness how Buddhist can't even visit their land in Tibet. You should probably experience that before opening your mouth. You think China cares for anybody besides their communist party and their Ambition? China will destroy the world.

        November 26, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
    • Jon

      Asia needs to handle it's own problem, that is the only way to resolve the problem, external interference only prolongs the inevitable. I'm sorry to say that's how westerners got their "peace", millions died but compared to the rest of the world that's a small price to pay for everlasting peace. I would agree though that China being the strong one should be trying to win the support of the entire region and not push them away, I hope the Chinese government realize that there is other ways of conquering the region other than military force.

      June 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  7. Rick McDaniel

    Probably NOT!

    January 28, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  8. JVN

    Very soon our 7th fleet will give the Red Commies a really good beating and the Commies will cry "Uncle". No really, the damn Chinese is ripe for a good beating. They have bullied all of Asian countries for a long time now, and it's their turn to get it.

    January 28, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Reply
    • BJ

      Not sure whether your kids would be enlisted.

      January 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Reply
    • Asian man

      Chinese people forgot their history, their country were in total chaos and their past dynasty collapse when they tried to invade other country such as Vietnam. China always invaded Vietnam when they are strong and like the past, they will get defeat and put their economy in ruin.

      February 11, 2013 at 12:49 am | Reply
      • maomao007

        history is loud and clear.look at what happened to china after the 1979 border conflict with vietnam.We are prosperous and strong

        February 19, 2013 at 1:34 am |
  9. Murvin

    Please see the Cairo Declaration, and read more about WWII, before anyone speak here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potsdam_Declaration

    January 28, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  10. wesley

    But they have Weapons of Mass Destruction!!
    At least this time the Americans would guess right. Unlike their 'Intelligence' on Iraq, is there no end in sight? Get the soldiers out, the Iraqis and Afghanis don't want you!

    January 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Reply
    • Marine

      Says who? You Wesley. Because of the EXTENSIVE experience (yes, sarcasm intended) you have in Iraq and Afghanistan you know EXACTLY what the average Afghan and Iraqi wants. Maybe YOU want the troops out so that pang in your heart from being a coward and not serving can go away. Let me tell you something, the regret you feel from knowing that you are made and kept free by the efforts of better men then yourself doesn't go away.

      January 28, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Reply
      • wesley

        Says BOTH the Iraqi and Afghanistan government in 2010 and 2011. Go to the wall street journal website and use their search feature. This comes from the experience of keeping in the know.
        And I don't feel any obligation or "Pang" to your so-called efforts. I've met actual afghanis who had to flee their country through refugee channels because their shops and homes were being bombed by U.S. forces as they slept in their beds. So no, there is no "better men" than those who achieve peace like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.

        January 28, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  11. Hasai

    Bah.
    Take the fools so keen for a fight and send them to the front lines, and see how quickly they change their tune.

    January 28, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  12. tradinfordollars

    Americans talking tough again..the military budget of the US is already broke and cannot afford another frontline or useless war. wars have always been about money or gold.

    January 29, 2013 at 2:08 am | Reply
  13. Naturalize citizen

    China is making the region unsafe. China is showing itself to be the bully in the region it has always been throughout history. Ask the Burmese , the Vietnamese .. they know it all too well. China invaded Tibet and is trying to erase the Tibetan culture , China claims that Vietnam is also part of China , heck , we never want to be a part of China , ever ..Whenever they set foot on our soil , we beat the heck out of them . If the US does not intervene forcefully and soon , China will be a real menace for all , including and especially the US in the very near future! Hope OBAMA has the gut to confront China!

    January 29, 2013 at 2:50 am | Reply
    • KhmerNY

      @Natural citizen, please be advised the Vietnameses and Thais have been bullied Cambodia and robbed the Khmer's lands for centuries. Khmers are the victims by Vietnamesse and Thais for centuries until the French arrived in the early 1700s, otherwise there is no Cambodia or Laos today. So cry me a river! Mekong Delta still have millions of Khmer people at present day. Vietnam lost a small rock in South China Sea and cry to the world. The Chinese live and fish in the South China Sea for centuries, ask the people of the Khmer Empire!

      January 29, 2013 at 8:06 am | Reply
      • Asian man

        If the Vietnamese didn't liberate the Cambodian people in 1979, there will be much less Cambodian people existed today. Thanks to the "killing fields" of Khmer Rouge, they killed more Cambodian than any one else. Before you are talking non-sense, read some history first!

        February 11, 2013 at 12:56 am |
    • Asian man

      I agree with you! Chinese people needs to read their history book or they have been brain wash by their stupid communist propaganda.

      February 11, 2013 at 12:52 am | Reply
      • China Man

        You know what Asian Man, you real ancestors probably Cambodian, if not the Chinese.

        November 26, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
  14. david

    can CNN stop provoking for rating?

    January 29, 2013 at 7:16 am | Reply
  15. Clinton

    I say, let em figure it out on their own... The US and Europe spent a large portion of the last century fighting out territorial and supremacy disputes all over the world... if Asia needs to revisit WW2 then it's on them.... We should continue our efforts to root out terrorism around the world, Asia has been growing at an extremely fast pace for the last few decades, if they really believe it's in their best interests to blow eachother apart and tear down their civilizations for a couple rocks poking out of the water then it's on them...

    January 29, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  16. Judgemenot

    Knowing what western media perceives issues around China and Asia. But still getting surprised what kind of meaningless articles are published and promoted here. What about getting some deeper knowledge and understanding about history before writing?!

    February 10, 2013 at 1:13 am | Reply
  17. Skeptic

    The Chinese are itching to try out their new weapons. The risk is they might be no good.

    February 17, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  18. Just on break

    Probably they can settle it in the International court .

    February 18, 2013 at 4:35 am | Reply
  19. Hm...America in a war over Senkaku?

    The US 7th fleet is an outdated concept. Tactical nukes carried on missiles will decimate the American fleet. Then what will the USA do? Nuke China? US nukes Shanghai, China nukes New York, okay mutually destroyed, but then China has 4 times the USA population; a war of population attriction? USA is not match. Ok, so US strategy is to have a limited war. Nuke China's nascent naval fleet in return for China's nuking of America's 7th fleet, a good bargain for the Chinese who barely have a carrier and a few patrol boats. After this is all over, then the Russians will retake the Pacific and clean up what's left of American power in the Pacific. Don't forget, there is still Al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea for America...

    February 18, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Reply
    • Aussie

      Sad but partially truth the media won't mention.
      It's simply none of US business inAsia or in middle east.
      Feed it's own people first, get rid of the huge debt, that's what matters to people, not trying to pretend being super hero or policemen.

      February 21, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  20. Hm...America in a war over Senkaku?

    Obama: WE go the 7th fleet, nay, we also have 5th, and 6th fleets all in the Pacific, now the Chinese are scared!!!
    Xi: Bring'em on baby, target practice!
    News report: Chinese tactical nukes hit 7th fleet, completely disappears. America now retaliates, and strikes back in return hits Chinese carrier fleet, all gone! Next more Chinese tactical nukes hit 5th and 6th fleets, all gone!
    Not a bad bargain. One Chinese carrier fleet for 3 American super carrier fleets.
    Obama: we gonna hit China's coastline!
    Kerry: Uh, that means our American coastline will be hit.
    Obama: Oh right....time to rethink our pivot to Asia.

    February 18, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Reply
    • Nuclear Option

      Your knowledge of how nuclear weapons are employed is at a discovery channel level, study more.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  21. YaValioCacaWates

    China just wants to kick some booty; anybody's booty will be just fine.

    April 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Reply
  22. kaliyuga

    THINK OF TIBET...

    November 24, 2013 at 7:34 am | Reply
  23. flordel

    Why don't you blame all these to Richard Nixon.

    November 25, 2013 at 6:08 am | Reply
  24. flordel

    China is a big BULLY. Judging from their pronouncements they scold the US like a child.

    November 25, 2013 at 6:20 am | Reply
  25. Kanamutenya

    USA is bully then any country in the entire planet!

    November 25, 2013 at 9:36 am | Reply
  26. Robert

    China 's aggression is going too far. Their naked ambition toward their neighbors must be checked for the sake of world peace and stability.

    November 26, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
  27. Guest

    Chinese prove to be the sick men of Asia.

    November 26, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  28. Rainbow

    It is always those who seek to project their power and influence that are the bullies. Sadly I can think of no country that has resisted the temptation to expand their influence in the last 3000 years ! On the bright side I can think of no country that has (in the long run) been successful in holding their ill gotten gains.

    November 26, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Reply

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