Is North Korea About to Go to War with Japan? No, and Neither is China

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Is North Korea about to go to war with Japan? No, and neither is China. But there will certainly be more saber rattling, some smoke, and maybe even a little fire in East Asia.

The signs are ominous when seen without context.

North Korea

Only a few days ago, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine. The projectile was aimed in the direction of Tokyo and traveled about 300 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan, known to both Koreas as the East Sea. The timing was meant to send a message; the U.S. and South Korea will soon participate in annual military drills, aimed in part at defending Japan from Pyongyang.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the newest provocation “poses a grave threat to Japan’s security, and is an unforgivable act that damages regional peace and stability.”

Abe ordered Japan’s military to strike down any North Korean missiles that enter its territory in the future, as part of a declared three-month state of alert.

South China Sea

epa04712854 A handout picture made available by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Affairs Office on 20 April 2015 shows construction at Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef in the disputed Spratley Islands in the south China Sea by China on 18 February 2015. Just before the opening of the Balikatan 2015 joint Philippines and US military exercises, Philippine military chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang showed the latest aerial photos of the expansive reclamation and building being done by China in at least seven disputed territories. The Philippines has alleged that China causes economic losses of at least 100 million dollars annually due to its reclamation activities, which have destroyed an estimated 120 hectares of coral reef systems in the Spratlys islands group. EPA/ARMED FORCES OF THE PHILIPPINES HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALESImage Source: SCMP

Meanwhile, disputes among multiple nations, most importantly China and Japan (backed by the United States), over small islands in the South China Sea continue. Each side claims the islands and the waters that surround them, as national territory. To enhance its claim, China embarked on an ambitious building program, constructing piers and runways, and stationing personnel, on several of the land masses. Japan, in response, regularly dispatches its naval and air forces to the region, conducting the equivalent an international pushing-and-shoving match.

The two-way challenge took on a new dimension as the United States assumed a more aggressive stance in recent months, challenging Chinese military force in the area (similar territorial disputes are ongoing between Japan and South Korea in the Sea of Japan/East Sea. There, however, caught between two allies, the U.S. remains neutral, simply calling on both sides to find a resolution.)

Among the more aggressive gestures by the United States is the use of its aircraft and naval vessels to assert freedom of navigation. U.S. warships routinely sail near Chinese-held islands, and Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft fly over Chinese construction sites. China accused the U.S. less than a year ago of a “serious military provocation” following the flight of American B-52s bomber over one of the islands China claims.

As reported by Reuters analyst William Johnson, in addition to freedom of navigation missions, the United States and Japan are now supplying regional partners such as the Philippines and Vietnam with updated military hardware. Both of those nations also assert claims to the disputed territories.

To further exacerbate the issue, those involved are not content with feuding over the existing islands. Several of the countries have actually built new islands, artificial land masses which they then lay sovereign claim to. Nations in the region have also laid claim to non-island “islands,” including submerged sandbars and reefs. Japan has planted a literal flag on a rock mass that only pops above water at low tide.

But Why the South China Sea?

China seas disputeImage Source: Ejitalk

All of this is going on for two reasons: international muscle-tussle, and domestic politics.

Internationally, military control of the islands means economic control of the South China Sea which means control over many of the oil, trade, and other sea routes (think military resupply) into East Asia. Many also believe the area holds significant oil and natural gas deposits that pretty much everyone would like to exploit.

Domestically, every party to the conflict benefits from looking tough, rattling some sabers and standing up to one’s adversaries while sucking up to one’s allies. China’s leaders have some new villains to push back against in line with domestic messaging about the nation as a new world power. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe continues to use the South China Sea issue to spur on nationalism and increase Japan’s defense budget. When his party decides it is finally time to eliminate Japan’s “no war” clause from its 1945 constitution, the islands dispute will form a key part of the argument.

On the U.S. side, nothing is better for the defense industry and the military than a new enemy to thwart, especially one like China with its growing arsenal of high-tech weapons that require expensive, high-tech countermeasures. Candidate Trump rarely fails to label China as a bad guy he will take on, and a President Hillary Clinton will not wish to be seen backing off from the fight.

Is it War?

It seems unlikely in the extreme that any nation would risk full-on war over the islands. Scuffles and accidents are inevitable when you put so much weaponry in a small area, and from time-to-time “manufactured,” albeit small-scale accidents, will take place to bolster a leader faced with some domestic crisis and in need of looking decisive.

But no one — not China, not the U.S., not even Donald Trump — will risk too much. Just don’t plan on taking your next vacation on an island in the South China Sea. While the conflict will not explode, it will be equally unlikely to ever resolve any time soon.

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