Feb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The Nobel Peace Prize committee probably isn’t expecting great things from Shinzo Abe or Xi Jinping, the new leaders of Japan and China.
Quite the opposite, most likely. Chinese warships pointing missile radar at a Japanese naval vessel in disputed waters is the latest reminder that officials in Beijing and Tokyo aren’t giving peace a chance. Prime Minister Abe is increasing cash-strapped Japan’s defense spending for the first time in 11 years, hardly a good sign as these things go. Neither is Xi’s vow not to budge on China’s sovereignty claims once he assumes the presidency next month.
The leaders of Japan and China need to put domestic politics aside and take one for Team World Peace. Abe and Xi could do this by announcing a summit to head off the growing risk of military conflict in north Asia.
No one expects either government to cede claims on a group of islands that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. This would be a deal to agree to disagree on the validity of who owns what in the East China Sea. Some kind of face-saving pact is needed to keep two of the world’s three biggest economies from coming to blows and dragging the U.S. into the scuffle, too.
Let’s dispense with the fantasy that economic interests will save the day or that shots won’t soon be fired. Locking a naval vessel in radar isn’t just a provocation, but often the first step toward an attack. We also are seeing a steady increase in the number of airspace intrusions that prompt the scrambling of fighter jets. Anyone wondering what’s at stake can find hints in the Hainan Island incident of 2001.
On April 1 of that year, a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, handing then President George W. Bush his first international crisis. While it was defused amid furious diplomatic efforts, the accident showed the danger of huge nations having military hardware in such close proximity. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how this could happen between China and Japan and how the fallout could quickly end the calm that’s so essential for commerce.
Nor does it require great ingenuity to imagine the position President Barack Obama will find himself in when north Asia’s big powers deploy battleships. The U.S. would be compelled to come to the aid of its stanch ally Japan against the most populous nation, a fast-emerging economic and geopolitical rival.
The White House wants to wind down its overseas wars, not gear up for another. And who can tell, on any level, how open confrontation between China and Japan would play out in North Korea? There, leader Kim Jong Un is doing more than his fair share to ratchet up tensions and pit China against the United Nations as the world considers more sanctions.
Nationalism can be as irrational as it is unpredictable, and it will color how Abe and Xi proceed. Japan is unhappy with China’s growing dominance. China resents the high concentration of U.S. military personnel and hardware on Japanese soil and believes Japan hasn’t atoned for its World War II aggression.
Rancid patriotism helped drive the previous Japanese government’s ill-advised move to nationalize the Senkaku islands. Enter Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party favors a more assertive Japan. On top of strengthening defenses, it means rewriting the postwar constitution to turn the military into more than just a self-defense force. Some want Japan to acquire nuclear weapons. Abe is likely to indulge in love-of-nation tactics should efforts to revive the economy falter and his approval wane.
Xi is a wild card here. His perceived pragmatism could give way to confrontation if domestic events turn against him. As soon as he takes office he must contend with pollution that’s choking Beijing; an increasingly activist media and free Internet; a scandal-prone and greedy Communist Party; and a widening gap between rich and poor, leading workers at Foxconn Technology Group and elsewhere to unionize.
As these and other challenges flare, the temptation to lash out internationally may be too great for a new Chinese leader to resist. Japan, China’s wartime colonizer, makes for an obvious target. Ceding ground to officials in Tokyo would be devastating for Xi’s standing in Beijing, and so tensions may escalate.
These risks make a summit meeting more vital than ever. Abe raised the prospect of such a confab last month, but stepped away from the plan after the recent radar-targeting incident. Perhaps the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the closest thing Asia has to a regional organization, may be able to midwife a meeting. Or perhaps Obama could offer the White House as a venue.
There are, after all, options. One is to turn the islands into a jointly developed park or tourist site. Another is to cooperate on exploiting potential energy reserves. Perhaps the UN could designate the islands a World Heritage site and administer them.
What really matters is stability. Rather than take Asia to the brink of war, Abe and Xi should give peace a chance.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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