Escalation in the East China Sea: A political and military possibility

Even if the leaders of China and Japan can lessen the significant political tensions between North Asia’s two biggest powers, the East China Sea dispute could still spark a bilateral war which might also bring in the United States. A recent spate of near misses shows that a minor armed clash is eminently possible. Nationalist sentiment and the lack of crisis management mechanisms could make restraint difficult once this occurs. Japan’s reluctance to use force may be less extensive than some assume and its connections to US strategy and C4SIR systems increase the prospects of early American participation. China’s command and control vulnerabilities could create serious pre-emption pressures if Beijing thought a larger conflict was possible. Moreover American attacks on China’s C4SIR systems and its conventional maritime and missile forces might create perverse incentives for China to use its nuclear weapons early while it was still confident in its physical ability to do so.

Australian defence planners should not assume that China and Japan are going to be able to keep their tense relationship in the East China Sea below the threshold of armed violence. Neither should they assume that China, Japan, and the United States will find it easy to avoid a very serious escalation once minor hostilities have occurred. This seminar presentation marks the launch of a new SDSC Centre of Gravity paper by Robert Ayson and Desmond Ball entitled ‘Escalation in North Asia: A Strategic Challenge for Australia’, based on their forthcoming Survival article ‘Can a Sino-Japanese War Be Controlled?’.

Robert Ayson has been Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University since 2010 and works in close association with the Centre for Strategic Studies. He has also held academic positions with the ANU, Massey University and the University of Waikato, and official positions with the New Zealand government. Professor Ayson has a particular interest in how we think about strategic competition and cooperation, including the management of armed conflict. This work ranges from exploring the ideas of Hedley Bull and Thomas Schelling to evaluating New Zealand and Australian responses to the changing Asia-Pacific balance between China and the United States.

Desmond Ball is an Emeritus Professor in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, Canberra. He was Head of the Centre from 1984 to 1991. In 2014 he was awarded the Order of Australia, and the Australian National Universities highest award, the Peter Baume award. He is credited by former US president Jimmy Carter as helping the US avoid nuclear conflict during the cold war. He has published extensively on issues of strategy, Australian defence and intelligence policy, Asia-Pacific security and Thailand’s border patrol force.