Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | December 23, 2013

Assorted Links, Asian Edition

1. Noah Smith on China’s new “air defense zone” in the East China Sea, “part of China’s attempt to claim the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands currently held by Japan”:

Why is China engaged in this effort? The dominant theory seems to be that this is part of China’s ongoing attempt to push American power out of East Asia. That’s unsettling, but not necessarily of world-shattering importance, since it seem unlikely that superpowers would go to war over this kind of slow shifting of spheres of influence. The biggest danger would be an accidental confrontation in the South or East China Sea that would lead to a diplomatic crisis. China is most certainly not our friend, and under its current regime is never going to become our friend, but that does not mean we’re headed for war.

But there’s a second, scarier possibility: China may be trying to provoke a limited war with Japan. China is keenly aware of its status as a rising superpower, and some Western observers have noted the parallel between China and Wilhelmine Germany 100 years ago.

Most new Great Powers “announce” their arrival with a decisive military victory. For Germany it was the victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. For the U.S. it was the Spanish-American War, which John Hay called a “splendid little war“. For Japan it was the victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. These wars are often, though not always, fought against an old enemy.

It has looked for the past few years that China has been casting about for an enemy against which to fight a “splendid little war”. In 2011 China confronted Vietnam; in 2012, China confronted the Philippines. But for whatever reason, it decided not to go to war. Perhaps these small, weak countries weren’t strong enough to provide a convincing opponent against whom to prove China’s new strength, or perhaps the threat of U.S. intervention was a deterrent.

But Japan is a different story.

For China, the most hated old enemy is Japan. China won WW2, but only with American help, and the Communist side took a back seat in the fighting. To say that many in China are still mad about WW2 would be an understatement. Anti-Japan sentiment is far, far higher in China than anti-Philippines or anti-Vietnam sentiment – or any sentiment at all, for that matter. For China’s government to show that it can now defeat Japan would cement its legitimacy like nothing else. And with economic growth slowing, China’s leaders may soon need all the legitimacy they can get.

Of course, the U.S. also backs Japan. For China to tangle with Japan over the Senkakus means a large chance of provoking a war with the U.S. But China may calculate that either A) it can win a brief limited shooting war with the Japanese navy and air force before American power can be brought to bear, or B) America would limit its support for Japan to diplomatic protests, holding back its aircraft carriers out of fear of China’s anti-ship missile arsenal.

Of course, either of those conclusions might be a disastrous miscalculation. …

Do read the whole thing.

2. Robert Kelly on relations between South Korea and Japan:

So the puzzle, to put it in social science terms, is not why Koreans dislike Japan. There are grounds for that. But rather, why do Koreans (specifically the media) exaggerate those grievances so much that even sympathetic outlets (like my blog or American Asia analysts more generally) feel compelled to call out the nonsense? That is actually a really good research question – but for all the hate-mail – if you are writing a PhD in this area.

Here is my primary hypothesis, from constructivism and psychology: ‘Japanphobia’ – the over-the-top Korean descriptions of Japan as some unrepentant imperial revanchist – serves S Korean domestic nationalist needs. Specifically Japan functions as a useful ‘other’ for the identity construction problem of a half-country (SK) facing a competitor (NK) that openly proclaims itself the real Korean national state against an imposter (SK). Trapped in who’s-more-nationalist-than-thou contest with NK, demonizing Japan is way for South Korea to compete with the North for Korean nationalist imagination. … The RoK can’t connect convincingly with Koreans as the anti-DPRK, because too many South Koreans are ambiguous on NK. So the (post-dictatorial, democratic) RoK is the anti-Japan instead.

NK routinely calls SK the ‘Yankee Colony’ to delegitimize it, but beating up on NK is not so easy in SK. A sizeable minority of S Koreans clandestinely sympathize with NK and agree that SK is too Americanized and not Korean enough. And NK cynically, relentlessly manipulates the evocative symbolism of Mt. Paektu to emotionally confuse the South. By contrast, Japan, the former colonialist, brings a convenient, black-and-white ‘moral clarity.’ It’s morally easy to condemn Japan. As a result, Liancourt gets fetishized (instead of now compromised Mt. Paekdu, the much more obvious geographic symbol of Korea) and Japan (not NK) becomes the state against which the RoK defines itself.

3. In September and October, Scott Wolford posted a series of lecture-based blog posts about this history of warfare in East Asia (see, e.g., posts on the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Long Chinese Civil War. Here’s a bit from his post on “Chiang Kai-Shek’s Two-Enemy Problem”:

Plenty of ink’s been spilled over the consequences of Chiang’s plan to eliminate the Communists first before trying to eject Japanese forces from the Asian mainland—a plan he was pretty much compelled to abandon after the Xi’an Incident—but there’s a more general point to be made here about leaders, political survival, and war. I’ve seen it argued that Chiang made a mistake here, but from whose perspective? If we look at his own interests—which, since he was a politician, we’re going to assume involved staying in power—then his decision, albeit chosen from a menu made up exclusively of bad options, was a sensible one.

How so? Well, Chiang knew that, if he fought the Japanese, domestic power would shift pretty significantly against him and in favor of the Communists, who (a) weren’t a regular military force and therefore wouldn’t be terribly useful against Japan and (b) would undoubtedly use the time to regroup, reconstitute, and refocus their efforts on defeating the Nationalists. He also, frankly, didn’t expect to defeat Japan in the mid 1930s, either. Yet while fighting Japan would’ve been a ticket to losing office, cutting a deal with the international enemy would at least keep domestic power tilted (however precariously) in his favor—which would help him stay in office. As a result, Chiang consistently turned down chances to resist the expansion of Japanese influence into northern China, choosing the path that gave him the best chance of holding on to political power. Is that so strange? I don’t think so.

So while leaders are often eager to fight international opponents when they can use the conflict to shift domestic power in their favor (see this also), they should also be pretty eager to avoid conflict when it would shift domestic power against them—even to the extent of trading territory for political survival (I’ve got a paper on this, but it’s under review, so not linking to it just yet). Chiang’s case is also an interesting one, because when he was denied the choice of trading territory for survival after Xi’an (that is, when an exogenous shock forced the game off its equilibrium path), his fears came true: the war weakened his position relative to the Communists who would ultimately force Chiang and the Nationalists to Taiwan by 1949.


  1. I’m unimpressed by the Noah Smith excerpt. China’s behavior over its territorial claims is less belligerent than sometimes supposed (see Taylor Fravel’s work on this subject). If China did attack Japan, the U.S. would not limit itself to diplomatic protests. The U.S. has a formal security treaty w Japan, it has bases and personnel on Japanese territory, and it would almost certainly respond militarily (and China must realize that). China’s legitimacy in the world’s eyes, which it wants to secure, depends at least as much on its observance of intl norms, prob. the most fundamental of which is the prohibition of wars of aggression (Art 2(4) of the UN Charter), as anything else (hence China’s refrain about its “peaceful rise”).

    This leads to the point that because great powers often announced their arrival via a war in the past doesn’t mean they will do so now. Noah Smith misses that there is a big difference between the intl normative/legal environment today versus that of the late 19th century. The difference is that aggressive war and territorial conquest, even small aggressive wars designed to ‘prove’ one’s status, have become normatively unacceptable in a way they weren’t at the time of the Sino-Japanese or Spanish-American wars. One of the things that being a ‘great power’, as the phrase is traditionally used, entails is accepting a special responsibility for the maintenance of intl peace and security. Chinese leaders are aware of this and would think twice about forfeiting any claim they might have to being a great power in that sense for the sake of ‘proving’ what they don’t have to prove b/c everyone knows it: namely, that they are a ‘rising power’.

    • there is a big difference between the intl normative/legal environment today versus that of the late 19th century. The difference is that aggressive war and territorial conquest, even small aggressive wars designed to ‘prove’ one’s status, have become normatively unacceptable in a way they weren’t at the time of the Sino-Japanese or Spanish-American wars.

      Fair point, well said.

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