Yes, it's time to put those light-weight, tropical suits on again and remember to tip the punkah-wallah generously because we're going out east again, and I mean - Far East. Two fascinating articles last week on the prospects, or otherwise, of a new Sino-Japanese war. First of all, to set the scene, there is a review by Adrian Michaels in The Telegraph of a book, Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival by David Pilling, which seeks to enlighten us all on the strange history and society of Japan. The main point Pilling makes is that except for some very rare examples of Japan suddenly galvanising itself, their main problem is their tendency to sink into torpor verging on inertia. Thus it has been, for example, for the last 20-odd years as they drifted along on a tide of stagflation. However, suddenly, according to Pilling, they have become energised again and he suggests that the twin disasters of the Tsunami and the nuclear emergency provided the necessary shock. Today they have a new prime minister with new economic ideas and the determination to drive Japan back into a leading position in world affairs. Not least amongst his early aims is to beef up a military which, under the old, post-WWII agreement with the USA, was reduced to a homeland defence force. Well, they certainly need to do something because the dragon to their west is beginning to breathe fire!
The second article is by James Holmes at The National Interest and he takes a close look at future Sino-Japanese relations which could (and probably will, in my uninformed opinion!) lead to a military 'clash'. I place inverted commas round the word 'clash' because, as Mr. Holmes points out, there is a broad spectrum of possibilities ranging from a couple of patrol boats exhanging shots up to all out war between the two. Hitherto, of course, Japan has felt comfortable under the water-proof defence umbrella provided by the USA which has allowed them to concentrate on making cars (especially excellent Toyotas that I love - but that's another story!) and 'loadsa'money'! But if you were Japanese and under threat from China just how much could you depend on America these days? I would suggest, with due deference to my American readers, somewhere between 'not at all' to 'just possibly maybe'. If in doubt, ask any Israeli!
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College so presumably he knows where-of he writes, and by and large this ex-corporal thinks he is right:
American fervor is the key unknown. The United States could be conflicted about its part in a protracted endeavor. It could confront a mismatch between compelling yet seemingly abstract interests, and popular apathy toward these interests. Freedom to use the global commons [ie, the South China Sea] is indubitably a vital U.S. interest. So is standing beside friends in peril. Everyman would doubtless agree if you put these questions to him. But how many rank-and-file citizens truly [comprehend] the system's importance to their daily lives? Few, one suspects.
If so, two antagonists attaching immense value to their objectives will face off in the East China Sea, one backed by a strong but faraway ally whose commitment could prove tepid. Clausewitz -- yep, he speaks out on contemporary affairs once again -- alleges that no one attaches the same urgency to another's cause that he assigns to his own. The ally with less skin in the game makes a halfhearted commitment to the cause, and looks for the exit when the going gets tough.
If the old skeptic is right, the US-Japan alliance could come under stress in wartime. Tokyo and Washington share the same immediate goal, conserving the US-led order in East Asia. Consensus about the surroundings and how to manage them would seem to cement allied unity. But as Clausewitz reminds us, the importance assigned to a goal -- not just the goal itself -- matters. One ally can place so-so value on a goal that another prizes dearly. Tokyo has status and territorial interests at stake, riveting its attention and energies on the dispute. Yet it's far from clear that the American polity -- state and society -- values custodianship of the maritime order or the defense of Japanese-held lands that highly. Suspicions could seep into allied consultations, with Tokyo questioning Washington's devotion and Washington resenting being dragged into war.
Of course, hovering over the considerations of all the 'interested parties' is that never-ending drag-anchor - "It's the economy, stoopid!" Many Chinese who lack nothing in the way of patriotism will, nevertheless, be reluctant to lose their new-found wealth in a war over some uninhabited lumps of rock in the South China Sea. On the other hand, I cannot measure but I do not underestimate the deep and abiding hatred many Chinese bear, with reason, towards Japan. The Germans have learned the hard way - none harder! - that they can achieve their national aims and aspirations by means of commerce much easier and cheaper than by war. I'm not sure the Chinese realise it yet.
It could be, as the dear, old 'Duke of Boot' put it in another context, "A damn nice thing, the nearest run thing you ever saw!"