Japanese and Chinese sabre-rattling could yet precipitate a global war much as a murder in the Balkans once did, warns George Kerevan
THE Japanese navy has just launched a new “destroyer”, named Izumo. Mind you, it’s a very strange-looking kind of destroyer.
For a start, it has a flat top like an aircraft carrier. It’s also much bigger than any normal destroyer. In fact, it’s bigger than HMS Invincible, the carrier Britain sent to the Falklands war complete with Sea Harrier jets. When pressed, the Japanese claim the new Izumo will carry helicopters to ferry troops in amphibious warfare operations. Which is odd as the Izumo lacks troop accommodation.
“Don’t fret,” says the Japanese navy. “We intend to use the Izumo for humanitarian work.” In which case, why does the Japanese navy need not only the Izumo but her two sister ships? Just how many natural disasters are they expecting?
As you might imagine, neighbouring China is not taking any of this at face value. And not just because Izumo was the name of the cruiser that led Japan’s attack on Shanghai in 1937, leaving 200,000 Chinese dead. The Chinese military well know that the latest ship to carry the Izumo name is not a destroyer, or a troop landing craft, but a genuine aircraft carrier capable of deploying the 42 Lockheed F-35 stealth fighters Japan is acquiring. The very same F-35s the Royal Navy is buying for Britain’s two new super carriers.
The Izumo is the latest pawn on the board in Japan’s long diplomatic chess game with China. Relations between the two have a theatrical air. Last month, a Chinese coastguard vessel used a loudhailer to “sternly declare” sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku islands, which both countries claim. As long as matters remain at the loudhailer stage, there is no need to worry. The very fact that Tokyo refers to the Izumo as a “destroyer” suggests it wants to send a discreet message to Beijing rather than start a war.
Unfortunately, matters don’t stop at the Izumo. Another of China’s worried neighbours, India, has also joined the carrier game. On Monday the Indian navy unveiled its first home-built aircraft carrier, the 37,500 tonne Vikrant. It will enter service circa 2018, equipped with 30 Russian-built MiG 29s. Russia is also set to deliver to India a refurbished Soviet-era carrier named the Vikramaditya.
What this tells us is that a veritable arms race has begun in South Asia as a host of nations respond to what they perceive is a threat – economic, diplomatic or even military – from China, the region’s putative super power. Witness: although China has a larger annual defence budget than India – £90 billion compared with £32bn – India has become the world’s largest importer of weapons, in response.
It was always inevitable that China would use some of its newfound wealth to modernise its Mao-era military machine, if only to keep the generals and admirals quiet. However, the scale of China’s military build-up is impressive: Beijing’s defence budget has grown 18-fold in the past two decades and is now the world’s second biggest after the Pentagon’s. China’s first aircraft carrier began sea drills this year.
The Asia-Pacific arms race may just be the sort of muscle-flexing we should expect from nations escaping western domination and rediscovering national self-respect. But with unresolved territorial disputes, plus a tendency for some regimes to use crude nationalism to deflect attention from domestic problems, this new arms build-up looks suspiciously familiar. South Asia in 2013 looks disturbing like Europe in 1913.
In 1914, it took only the murder of an obscure Austrian archduke to trip Europe, then the world, into conflict. The First World War was wholly avoidable but the underlying political rivalries, plus a lack of appropriate diplomatic machinery, resulted in global carnage. In Asia in 2013, it might be better to think the worst in order to avoid history repeating itself.
A political accident is just waiting to happen in South Asia. In recent weeks the administrations in both Tokyo and Beijing have become more bellicose – entirely for internal reasons. Prime minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is facing a rising tide of popular opposition to an increase in sales tax. So he sends a close aide to make an offering at the shrine to Japan’s war dead, knowing it will gain the approval of the nationalist Right while causing the Beijing media to fulminate.
Meanwhile in China, where the economy has tanked, the state-sanctioned press has been publishing editorials attacking Japan rather than the Communist Party. One paper thundered: “Japan is indulging in mania and worship for power”, and insisting that China should build more aircraft carriers of its own. It would take only a minor scuffle between Japanese and Chinese warships for this sort of inflamed rhetoric to turn lethal.
But there is a more worrying factor at work: the slow collapse of the Arab Middle East into religious civil war threatens China’s oil supply. This week’s violence in Egypt sent oil prices rocketing. America is sitting pretty because fracking technology has reduced her oil imports dramatically. China, on the other hand, is about to become the world’s biggest importer of fossil fuels and dependent on Middle East politics.
Beijing’s only alternative oil supply lies under the South China Sea. But China’s claim to these oil and gas deposits is disputed by neighbouring Vietnam and the Philippines. This is already proving a source of friction. India has just given Vietnam £60 million to buy fast patrol boats to protect its waters from Chinese naval incursions. Expect India’s new carrier to visit Vietnam in due course.
Fortunately, Beijing has agreed to meet with the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations next month, to discuss new diplomatic machinery to reduce conflict. So Asia’s new aircraft carriers might yet end up as floating casinos.
On the other hand, the People’s Liberation Army has just published The Glorious Mission, an online game in which China sends a fleet to recapture the Senkaku islands from Japan… led by an aircraft carrier.