Columns / Discourse / October 7, 2010

Voice of Reason: The East China Sea

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most Knox students haven’t exactly been riveted by recent events in the East China Sea. Japan detained a Chinese fishing boat crew that was in waters administered by Japan but claimed by China, near a disputed set of islands. There were protests, boycotts were threatened and harsh words were exchanged, but the dispute eventually fizzled out.

So what, those of you still reading are probably thinking, it doesn’t matter to me. The exact details of the fishing boat incident don’t, but what does matter to you is that America as a nation has long-standing commitments that increasingly threaten to drag our entire nation into an East Asian vortex we hardly pay attention to.

The Chinese Communist Party has abandoned its dated ideology and instead is trying to keep its massive nation unified through appeals to nationalism. The Communists are playing a dangerous game. The more the schools and party propaganda extol the virtues of nationalism and sacrifice, the more people will start to demand harsh responses for insults to national honor. Chinese street protests have already been pushing hard for official policy to be more belligerent to Japan during this crisis, as they have towards the US and Taiwan on several past occasions, such as the U.S.’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Websites are tightly monitored in China, but some comments that aren’t erased fast enough show growing public anger at the perceived timidity of the regime. In the past century alone, the emperor and the Republic were both brought down by nationalist movements. The Communists know this, and will take any step to avoid becoming next on the chopping block. If it takes an attack on Japan or Taiwan to preserve the Party, there is very little to keep events from spiraling out of control.

Meanwhile, there is Japan. Though it technically lacks a military, its “Self-Defense Forces” receive the third highest defense budget in the world. Nationalism is on the upswing there too, and calls to throw off the post-WWII treaty where Japan forever renounced war increase yearly. Only American intervention keeps Japan from militarizing and even that may not be enough if they don’t trust our commitment. As China becomes stronger and stronger, the temptation for Japan to remilitarize will only grow stronger. A militarized Japan fought four separate wars from 1895-1945 and was only stopped after two million Japanese citizens died, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were piles of radioactive rubble, and the combined forces of America, Britain, Russia and China were set against it. From what I know, history has taught us a militarized Japan has never brought the world anything except war and suffering. The world cannot afford for an arms race to break out in East Asia.

But terrible as that could be for Asia, why does it concern you directly? Our country maintains a defense treaty with Japan, as well as South Korea and the Philippines, and an informal agreement with Taiwan. A Chinese attack prompted by panic in its government would mean we are obligated to declare war on China. We have gone to war in Asia three times since 1945. All it would take is a small incident of little more seriousness than that fishing boat to drag us into a war with the world’s most populous country. France and Germany once fought a war over a badly worded telegram. Accidents happen in foreign affairs.

If the thought of war over islands you’ve never heard of seems ridiculous, remember that no one had heard of places such Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima 100 years ago. Being obscure does not protect a place from becoming the graveyard of thousands. It was once said that wars are God’s way of teaching Americans geography. Let us hope that has ceased to be true.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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