Let’s not understate the likelihood of war in East Asia or kid ourselves that the United States can remain aloof should China and Japan enter the lists. It’s tough for Westerners to fathom the nature of the competition or the passions it stokes. From an intellectual standpoint, we have little trouble comprehending the disputes pitting the Asian rivals against each other. For example, both Tokyo and Beijing claim sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, a tiny archipelago near Taiwan and the Ryukyus. China covets control of offshore air and sea traffic, hence its new East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and its efforts to rewrite the rules governing use of the nautical commons. Undersea energy resources beget frictions about where to draw the lines bounding exclusive economic zones (EEZs). And so on.

The facts of these cases are outwardly simple. They’re about how to divvy up territory and stuff. Outsiders get that. But therein lies a danger — the danger of assuming that tangible, quantifiable things are all there is to an impasse. That’s doubly true when the territory and stuff under dispute command trivial worth. By strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s cost-benefit logic, the Senkakus or Scarborough Shoal merit minimal time or resources from any of the protagonists. Hence commentators wonder why compromise appears so hard when the stakes are so small by objective standards. They find it baffling that great powers would risk war over “uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea.” Some Asia-watchers strike a world-weary tone at the willingness of societies to struggle over “intrinsically worthless” geographic features.

by James Holmes

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