60 Second Expert: Japan v. China

A minor collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessel last August might seem unlikely to precipitate the two countries breaking off relations. But the uptick in tensions reflects policies that both Beijing and Tokyo see as vital to their self-interest. The Japanese are warily watching an increase in Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, while the Chinese perceive growing hostility from Japan’s ruling party, abetted by U.S. attempts to preserve its influence in the region. Both sides are correct.

Although China’s rising nationalism may begin to explain its posture, far more important is its voracious appetite for the region’s energy resources, which are vital to its ever-expanding industrialization. Joint U.S. naval exercises with Japan and South Korea in the region have strengthened the perception that the United States is attempting to “encircle” China and threaten its core interests. Nor does Beijing welcome Washington’s involvement in its territorial disputes with Vietnam, India, and other countries, many of which concern access to other crucial resources. The Chinese have responded to perceived U.S. encroachment by beefing up their navy and asserting themselves in the surrounding seas. The United States, meanwhile, invariably seizes this pretext to expand its alliances with other Asian countries.

The U.S. alliance with Taiwan, an island claimed by the Chinese and steadily supplied with U.S. arms, and antagonism toward North Korea, a Chinese ally and buffer state, put additional stress on regional security. If North Korea were to collapse, China would be flooded with refugees and saddled with a nuclear-armed U.S. ally on its southern doorstep.

The United States is certainly trying to surround China with military forces and an alliance system. China, in turn, has exerted itself in ways it has not done in a very long time. These national problems have regional consequences, and regional problems have increasingly assumed a global dimension. But none of these tensions is insurmountable. A strengthened and more democratic United Nations is necessary to resolve these crises. The alternatives – spiraling conflict and even war between the two East Asian giants — are the stuff of nightmares.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. He also writes the blog, Distpatches from the Edge.