In the early morning of Feb. 9, Tokyo informed Beijing’s embassy here that the Senkaku Islands would be administered by the Japanese coast guard. In that small story in the Christian Science Monitor are some interesting portents.
Few other newspapers bothered to report what undoubtedly seemed to editors a trivial matter. It may in fact prove trivial. But possibly not. History is well-larded with small events that had large consequences, as devotees of the War of Jenkins Ear know. In this case, Japan told an increasingly nationalistic China to stuff it on a question, ownership of the tiny Senkakus and the possibly quite large oil and gas deposits around them, that has echoes in modern Chinese history. From the Meiji Restoration in Japan to the end of World War II, the Japanese frequently told the Chinese to stuff it. Then, there was nothing a weak China could do about it. Now, China is no longer weak.
China’s present grand strategy is to avoid conflicts and build up her economic strength. She is happy to watch potential rivals dissipate their strength in wars while she drives their industry into the ground. The Chinese government takes a long view of history. But it is not only democracies that must pay attention to public opinion. If the Chinese people react strongly to Japan’s unilateral move, things could get interesting.
A face-off between the Chinese and Japanese navies would have unpredictable results. On paper, the Chinese fleet is stronger, but it is more a collection of ships than a real navy. The Imperial Japanese Navy was a first-rate organization, but how much of its quality survives in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force is unknown. Would the United States intervene in support of Japan? If it came to shooting, my guess would be yes. But at that point, the U.S. would have set itself up for a potential strategic disaster, because an obvious Chinese response would be to tell North Korea, "Go for it!" A North Korean nuke on Osaka would set Japanese ambitions back a mite, and an America trying to fight one war in Korea while already enmeshed in another in Iraq would give real meaning to the phrase "imperial overreach."
To a historian, a crisis over the Senkakus would fit in a larger and not comforting pattern: the world before 1914. Then, an unstable European order blundered from crisis to crisis, just avoiding a general war in each, until some shots fired in Sarajevo brought down the whole house of cards and with it Western civilization. Today, we have the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian mess (the Balkans of our time?), the Balkans themselves, a threatened American attack on Iran, a resurgent FARC in Columbia, and a North Korea that just declared itself a nuclear state. The fin de siecle feeling grows ever stronger; what small incident will it be this time that causes the house of cards to collapse, the house of cards that is a world of unipolar American dominance?
The tragedy here is that states continue to play the game of rivalry between states, paying no attention to the prime fact of a Fourth Generation world: when states fight each other, the likely winners will be nonstate elements. Again, the analogy with 1914 is hard to avoid. Then, the ancient Houses of Hapsburg, Romanov, and Hohenzollern remained focused on each other, thinking only in terms of which would triumph over its rivals. In fact, the events they allowed to be set in motion destroyed them all. The real victors were a guy named Ulyanov sitting in a café in Zurich and a transatlantic republic, the United States.
So it will be today when states fight other states, regardless of which state wins the formal conflict. We see that already in Iraq, where the American victory over the Iraqi state created a new and fertile field for Islamic nonstate forces. China could easily come apart internally as a result of war; God knows what might emerge out of a Japan that again suffered nuclear attack, or the ruins of Korea. Nor is the internal stability of the United States guaranteed in the event of military defeat and strategic disaster. Thanks to the cultural Marxism of political correctness and multiculturalism, we are no longer one nation, under God, indivisible.
The 21st century will be a time for what Russell Kirk called the politics of prudence. But prudence is seldom a cardinal virtue in national capitals, whether we are speaking of Tokyo, Pyongyang, Beijing, or Washington.