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Don’t let the East China Sea turn 2014 China into 1914 Europe

Strategic logic, adversarial fear and nationalistic emotion are often the major paths leading to war – as are their progenies, historical enmity and ethnic humiliation. Unfortunately in the East China Sea, all of these are in play. Fear and emotion are dominating actions; these, if unchecked, can increase the prospect of a conflict no one wants needs or can afford.

The territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (as they are known in Japan, or Diaoyou Islands in China) goes beyond the simple question of who exercises sovereignty over the islands. That is but one, although the most significant, of the points of friction which involve South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Above all, these disputes are playing out as part of the great power relationship between the United States and an emerging China; the result being that individual nations are forging closer relationships with the United States as a hedge against China.

In 1914, the world faced a somewhat analogous situation. Nations divided into two large blocs, their competition manifest in the race for colonial possessions and their resources, and control of the seas through the dreadnought race, against a backdrop of militarism, nationalism and imperialism driving muscular responses to unresolved territorial disputes, particularly in the Balkans, added to historical enmity among many of the nations involved, including France and Germany.

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Similar issues and power divides are very much in evidence in China's coastal periphery. In the South China Sea, there are ongoing disputes over hundreds of islands – but more importantly there are disputes over the resources in the sea and on the seabed and who controls these. In the East China Sea and Yellow Sea there are a handful of islands whose sovereignty is contested, including the Senkaku–Diaoyou Islands. In each case the disputes revolve around the historical perception of ownership. The Chinese in particular feel that many of the present sovereignty arrangements were decided by treaties and a world order that China did not participate in, fitting the narrative of historical humiliation that China endured particularly at the hands of the Japanese. But China should also realize that you cannot just rewrite the rules.

In that super-charged atmosphere, China's newly declared Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has come under much scrutiny. An ADIZ does not imply sovereignty. They are used primarily to identify and control civilian air traffic. What is controversial about China's is that it includes both military and civilian aircraft, overlaps other declared ADIZs, and notably includes the Sekaku-Dioyou Islands – a needless provocation.

Most civil air carriers have acknowledged that they will respect the ADIZ reporting rules – except Japan's airlines. The U.S. overflight by B-52s last week signaled that Washington certainly won't recognize the military reporting requirements of the ADIZ; the Chinese non-reaction to those U.S. military overflights gives hope that its ADIZ will also not be enforced with respect to Japanese military overflights.

The truth is that no one wishes war to erupt in the East China Sea. China may be strong enough to take on Japan militarily, but it is certainly not strong enough to take on the United States, which is committed to Japanese defence through a mutual defence agreement that specifically includes the Senkaku-Dioyou islands. And aside from relative military strengths, China has more important issues on the table, such as implementation of domestic reforms announced at the end of the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China.

For a China whose growth depends considerably on foreign trade, including with Japan and the United States, it would be deeply counterproductive to militarily engage one of its major trade partners. Japan, the third largest world economy, still recovering from the 2008 recession and the 2011 earthquake, has tried unsuccessfully to convey that it too wishes to avoid open conflict. The United States, with its own domestic budgetary and fiscal issues, has signaled in Syria, over Iran, and in Mali that it will really only intervene when its own national interests are at stake; the U.S. will likely seek restraint from both sides.

However, both the Chinese and Japanese have sent fighter planes and naval vessels to the islands, and have at times turned on weapons-targeting radar as a warning to the other. Forces in close proximity in a charged atmosphere can easily misinterpret actions, and an ostensibly defensive action can conceivably be interpreted as an overt threat.

The greatest threat in an accidental escalation is that it can, at any time, spiral beyond the political will to contain. In that sense, any clash in the Senkakku-Dioyou Islands has the potential of doing what the asssasination in Sarajevo did in 1914. And with an unpredictable North Korea possibly taking advantage, it is not difficult to see a future that embroils the United States, China, the Korean peninsula and Japan in a conflict.

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To avoid accidental confrontation, it is critical that regional bodies, as the loci for dialogue, be strengthened and replace the patchwork quilt of bilateral agreements and alliances which characterize the Pacific at present and which increase the danger of bilateral relationships sucking many into their vortex, as Austrian ultimatums against Serbia drew the Russians, the Germans and finally the United Kingdom and France into war in 1914 over a simple assassination.

George Petrolekas was an advisor to two Chiefs of Defence Staff and is a co-author of The Strategic Outlook for Canada.

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