China Keeps the Peace at Sea

Why the Dragon Doesn't Want War

A dragon-shaped lantern in Anhui province. The Chinese characters on the board in front of the lantern read "Diaoyu Islands," referring to the disputed islands called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan. (Courtesy Reuters)

At times in the past few months, China and Japan have appeared almost ready to do battle over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands --which are administered by Tokyo but claimed by both countries -- and to ignite a war that could be bigger than any since World War II. Although Tokyo and Beijing have been shadowboxing over the territory for years, the standoff reached a new low in the fall, when the Japanese government nationalized some of the islands by purchasing them from a private owner. The decision set off a wave of violent anti-Japanese demonstrations across China.

In the wake of these events, the conflict quickly reached what political scientists call a state of equivalent retaliation -- a situation in which both countries believe that it is imperative to respond in kind to any and all perceived slights. As a result, it may have seemed that armed engagement was imminent. Yet, months later, nothing has happened. And despite their aggressive posturing in the disputed territory, both sides now show glimmers of willingness to dial down hostilities and to reestablish stability.

Some analysts have cited North Korea's recent nuclear test as a factor in the countries' reluctance to engage in military conflict. They argue that the detonation, and Kim Jong Un's belligerence, brought China and Japan together, unsettling them and placing their differences in a scarier context. Rory Medcalf, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained that "the nuclear test gives the leadership in both Beijing and Tokyo a chance to focus on a foreign and security policy challenge where their interests are not diametrically at odds."

The nuclear test, though, is a red herring in terms of the conflict over the disputed islands. In truth, the roots of the conflict -- and the reasons it has not yet exploded -- are much deeper. Put simply, China cannot afford military conflict with any of its Asian neighbors.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis