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China, Japan and the next world war

Why Trump and XI policies in the South China Sea could lead Japan to rearm

ANALYSIS | Andrew M. Mwenda | As Uganda and Rwanda were preparing themselves for a possible military confrontation, I was in Japan talking to public officials, intellectuals and academics on the situation in the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. This region has become the world’s largest trading area, overtaking the Atlantic trade between Europe and North America that over centuries dominated global trade. Yet in spite of its increasing prosperity, or even because of it, the Pacific Rim may be the source of the next world war.

For instance, there is a dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. Right now Japan controls them but no one lives on them. People used to live there in the early 1900s. But they are too small, too far from Tokyo and economically unviable. Japan incorporated these islands in 1905 by “lawful means under the international legal framework” – official Japanese government documents claim.

According to Japan, in 1895 Japanese people, about 200, inhabited the islands living off fishing and seafood processing. They would also collect minerals from the Island. However, the business became unviable and the people left. Japan did not settle people there again because they were not contested. But in the 1970s the United Nations (UN) came out with a report saying there is potential for natural gas and oil. Then China and Taiwan began claiming them, raising it in international fora. They even began sending their fishing boats to these islands. Today, there are Japanese coastguards protecting the islands with some warships at a distance.

But tensions are rising. China has recently sent one warship, a submarine and some military planes – drones – to the islands to test the resolve of the Japanese and their American allies to defend the islands. The Americans recognise these Islands as Japanese territory. America does not want China to come close to the islands. This is because it has a military alliance with Japan, which binds it to protect her ally in such cases of Chinese provocation! American warships are, therefore, constantly in the area, mainly to threaten the Chinese. This raises tensions.

Under international law every country has “innocent passage” in the seas even when the area is under territorial control. To make sure it has effective control over these islands, it would be best for Japan to build military bases. But Tokyo fears that doing so could provoke China, which can respond by attacking the islands. This would most likely draw USA into war with China. Would America risk war with China over these small islands? Indeed Japan fears America may ask her not to build anything there to avoid provoking China!

Japan was worried about former U.S. President Barack Obama’s ability to keep the USA-Japan alliance. Obama was trying to engage with the Chinese and talk to them about these problems. This worried all the Asian countries who feel America should use her muscle to scare China!

But in spite of Obama’s efforts, China continued to develop artificial islands in the South China Sea, and to pressure Taiwan, Senkaku, and launch cyber-attacks on neighbouring countries.

Obama had said the USA-Japan agreement covers the Senkaku islands. Yet he also said America is neutral on the sovereignty issue. This is why China would send her coast guards because it smelt America weakness. Since Donald Trump came to office he has been saying USA-Japan agreement covers the Senkaku islands, but he does not say America is neutral on the sovereignty issue i.e. territorial claims. Consequently China has significantly reduced her provocations.

While Obama thought strategic cooperation with China, Trump seeks strategic competition with Chinese and Russians. Trump thinks China and Russia are trying to challenge U.S. global dominance. Obama thought he could engage the two countries but instead they became more assertive. Trump may personally like Putin but his administration has been tougher on Russia with sanctions than Obama’s.

If America shifts towards China, where would Japan look for strategic alliance? The one country that has the potential to grow and challenge Chinese dominance is India. Japan doesn’t think India can provide security to East Asia. This is partly because of India’s nonaligned policy but also because India-China trade is too big in spite of their strategic competition. And given that Japanese trade with China is at an all time high, wouldn’t it be prudent for Tokyo to cultivate Beijing as an ally instead of seeing her as a threat? This is where matters of culture and history Trump naked economic self-interest in relations among nations. It seems to me the Japanese do not see an alliance with China in the near future.

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