Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.


4 responses to “Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?”

  1. Andrew Chubb 朱波 Avatar

    “If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.”

    Agree entirely with this, surely a war would be the biggest disaster, however, it’s plausible Xi would see it differently. First, Deng’s war in 1979 was a disastrous loss to a former vassal, but the trick still worked to solidify his domestic power. And second, Xi may calculate that the interdependence of contemporary Asia-Pacific makes war so costly that Japan and the US won’t let it happen.

    This would actually tie in with your main point above, because if this is the case, and thus far it has been, then China can wield the logic of MAD to its advantage, particularly in conjunction with the narratives of a military staining to get off the leash (as fed to Kyodo by the PLA), and a crazed nationalistic public that can “constrain” the leadership from backing down.

    I wrote about this a bit in this post:

    This is close to the heart of where my phd is at, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Graham Webster Avatar

      Very interesting post. I hadn’t caught it when it was new.

      In the spirit of debate (with rather little evidence on my part), I’ll offer that I’m not fully on board with the analogy to Mutually Assured Destruction. We can toss out the obvious distinction between a nuclear standoff and a conventional maritime battle; I accept the premise that economic interdependence makes a large conflict highly damaging (if not as much to life and environment).

      But what do you think of this: Rather than a clash with Maritime Surveillance or Fisheries forces necessitating and driving escalation by the PLA Navy, what if using these forces instead provides an automatic out? Say a Japanese Coast Guard vessel sinks a Maritime Surveillance vessel, or vice versa. In that case, there is a decision point for the aggrieved party: To escalate or not to escalate. Even retaliation in kind could avoid a formal military conflict. Of course, that’s a formality. But it could take time, and by then it could be a standoff between the U.S. Navy and the PLA Navy with MSDF, JCG, and CMS on scene—very dangerous, but dangerous in a way that really invokes MAD. In this scenario, the non-Navy forces could serve as insurance against escalation rather than a deceptive trip-wire. If this first line of lower-level conflict was not there, and a PLAN or MSDF vessel is lost, the rubber has already hit the road, and both on-site protocols and political pressures could make deescalation difficult.(Or, I could be wrong.)

      Next thought: I am entirely unsure what to think about two competing (and probably both true in different degrees) narratives: a chaotic, uncoordinated combination of forces on the Chinese side that leaders can only wish would be more predictable; or, a well-controlled array of forces designed to create a sense of unpredictability, essentially implying any vessel could be the bad cop at any time. Who knows. It does seem, as you suggest, that things have been increasingly well coordinated _most of the time_ . This is the part where I’m comfortable saying I don’t know yet.

      1. Andrew Chubb 朱波 Avatar

        Great piece that by Kreider.

        With you on that maritime law enforcement point – i think that may well be China’s intention. Another reason to keep the oft-touted “incident or miscalculation” in perspective.

  2. […] long-lasting if not in-depth interest in China-Japan ties as viewed from the United States. First: Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi’s inside political play, or part of a broader move? Second: Did the Chinese government really call Diaoyu/Senkaku a ‘core interest’? (Verdict: […]

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