China and Japan have seldom been the best of friends, but these past few months have arguably been some of the worst for their relationship since the end of the Second World War. What began as a typical dispute over some strategically insignificant islands has turned into a full-blown stand-off between Asia’s two biggest economies. Over the past few months this has meant a build-up of military forces in the East China Sea, leading to a number of incidents, most notably the reported January 30th incident in which a Chinese warship locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese opponent.[1] On the surface, it would seem that the Senkaku dispute poses the greatest risk for a renewed war in the Pacific.

Image courtesy of dokientrung, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of dokientrung, © 2011, some rights reserved.

That being said, in reality the dispute is more likely a red herring. The reasoning for this is relatively simple; both sides are new governments that are looking to get legitimacy in the foreign policy sphere by standing up to one another. At its heart, this dispute is a political staring contest; actual war would cause enormous economic damage to both sides and would undermine the objective of the dispute in the first place. For China in particular, war would be virtually suicidal as a conflict with Japan would ultimately invite American intervention. This is not to say that war is impossible, one need only look to 1914 to see the fallacy of relying on economic factors and the rationality of actors to prevent war. Rather, this is simply to illustrate that the start of a war between China and Japan would probably be unintentional, brought about by rapid escalation. With this in mind, it is fairly clear that the Senkaku dispute is, as alluded to in the title, a distraction from a far more likely conflict between China and Vietnam.

To begin with, if one accepts the common (if debatable) premise that China wants to assert itself more vigorously by bringing about a military confrontation, simple process of elimination drastically narrows their options. India has its share of differences with China, but India has a massive military and possesses nuclear weapons, making it a very dangerous country to bait. Likewise, with countries like Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan, the disputes exist but conflicts with any of these countries could invite a substantial American response, something China’s leadership has no interest in attracting.[2] Vietnam has none of these drawbacks. Its army is large, but lacks nuclear weapons and has a relatively underequipped navy and air force compared to China. Furthermore, Vietnam is unlikely to draw a significant intervention, either from its neighbours or from outside powers like the United States. Finally, Vietnam already has an on-going dispute with China over the Spratly islands, one that could easily be used as a means to bait them into open conflict, especially given the likely value of the oil and gas reserves present near the islands.[3] However, there is a wider strategic rationale for conflict beyond simple process of elimination.

In February 1979, ostensibly in response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and as retribution for Vietnam’s occupation of the Spratly islands, China launched its own attack against Vietnam. The war was marked by a string of tactical and logistical failures by the People’s Liberation Army, culminating in China’s withdrawal in March, leading many commentators to write off the war as a Chinese failure. However, for all of its shortcomings, China’s abortive war with Vietnam did achieve its strategic objective. At the time, China was at odds with the Soviet Union, having nearly gone to war with them ten years earlier. The Soviets were also continuing to supply the Vietnamese with weapons and advisory support as Vietnam established itself as a dominant player in Southeast Asia. When China invaded Vietnam in 1979, it did so not necessarily because it was concerned about Vietnam itself, but rather to send a message to the Soviets. In that sense, the war was a complete success; it exposed the fact that the Soviets could not risk a direct confrontation with China and forced them to do little more than sit on the sidelines and condemn the war. In the long run, this effectively curtailed Soviet efforts to expand their influence in Southeast Asia and allowed China to remain the region’s de facto power.

The reason that this is all important is because in a sense, the background factors that brought about the Sino-Vietnamese war are again manifesting themselves. The United States is continuing its much publicized “pivot” towards the Pacific in an attempt to balance China’s newfound power. In Southeast Asia, this has meant a surprising and again well publicized rapprochement with Vietnam, which in recent years has included military exercises between the two nations.[4] However, for all of America and Vietnam’s recent attempts to strengthen their relations, the two nations are far from allies and in the event of a conflict, it is still unlikely that America could feasibly support Vietnam against China. Given this, China has a potential opportunity to regain the momentum it has lost since the “pivot” and expose the fragility of American commitments not just to Vietnam but to all the other Southeast Asian nations that America has been recently courting. Unlike Japan, not only does China have a potential strategic objective in pushing a conflict with Vietnam, but it also has a historical precedent that it can draw upon both as a guideline and as reassurance to its nervous leadership. In that context, while the Senkaku dispute is perhaps more immediate, it is in the Sino-Vietnamese relationship where the long-term danger for a war in the Pacific lies. It is therefore crucial that in spite of the recent troubles in the East China Sea that the United States not neglect the underlying strategic issues plaguing the South China Sea, lest it be caught off guard as the Soviet Union was in 1979.

[1] “Senkaku/Diaoyu islands: Japan may release China radar data.” BBC News. February 9, 2013.

[2] Gideon Rachman. “The shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific.” The Financial Times. February 4, 2013.

[3] “South China Sea Overview.” US Energy Information Administration. February 7, 2013.

[4] “Vietnam begins naval exercises with the US.” The Telegraph. April 23, 2012.