Events in the East China Sea

Things still appear to be heating up between China and Japan:

Events in the East China Sea since 2009 have thrust to the forefront the following frightening question: will China and Japan imminently go to war? Conventional answers in the affirmative point to the deep level of historical mistrust and a certain level of “unfinished business” in East Asian international politics, stemming from the heyday of Showa Japan’s imperialism across Asia. Those on the negative often point to the astronomical economic costs that would follow from a war that pinned the world’s first and third largest economies against its second in a fight over a few measly islands, undersea hydrocarbon reserves be damned.

I can’t pretend to arbitrate between these two camps but I find that far too many observers sympathize with the second camp based on rational impulse. Of course China and Japan wouldn’t fight a war! That’d ruin their economies! I sympathize with the Clausewtizean notion of war being a continuation of politics “by other means,” and the problems caused by information asymmetries (effectively handicapping rational decision-making), but the situation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands can result in war even if the top leaders in Tokyo and Beijing are eminently rational.

Political scientist James D. Fearon’s path-breaking article “Rationalist Explanations for War” provides a still-relevant schema that’s wonderfully applicable to the contemporary situation between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Fearon’s paper was initially relevant because it challenged the overly simplistic rationalist’s dogma: if war is so costly, then there has to be some sort of diplomatic solution that is preferable to all parties involved — barring information asymmetries and communication deficits, such an agreement should and will be signed.

Of course, this doesn’t correspond to reality where we know that many incredibly costly wars have been fought (from the first World War to the Iran-Iraq War). So, if wars are costly — as one over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is likely to be — why do they still occur?

There are some interesting thoughts there, but no one who has even a modicum of familiarity with military history will find the idea that war cannot happen because the observer does not believe it to be in the best long-term economic interests of the two nations involved to be credible in any way.