January 2014 Commentary

China and Japan—Canada

by J. L. Granatstein

The situation in the East China Sea remains tense with Japan insisting on its rights to the Senkaku Islands to the west of Okinawa and China, calling them the Diaoyu Islands, saying they are historically Chinese. Adding to the complications, Taiwan claims the islands as well. The islands are essentially worthless outcrops of rock, but the resources under the seabed are thought to be rich.

Japan’s air defence zone covers the tiny islands; in November, China declared its own Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the islands. At some point, fighter jets will certainly clash or armed vessels from the Japanese and Chinese navies will trade shots.

So what is Canada to do in this delicate situation? First, we have long,  close relations with Japan, and our navies have worked together on exercises for years. Our trade with Japan is also intensive, though it has been eclipsed in size by the massive imports of electronics and clothing  from China over the last decade. Quietly, Canada has also been forging the beginnings of defence links with China. In June last year, the two nations’ defence ministers met in the People’s Republic and set up a Defence Coordination Dialogue, and in November, just after China proclaimed its ADIZ, a Chinese military delegation came to Ottawa for talks. Nothing has been said publicly about the discussions.

The Chinese have been very forceful in dealing with their region, frightening every neighbouring nation and spurring defence build-ups in Japan, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, and South Korea. Their first aircraft carrier put to sea recently, and—of special interest to us—China launched a big icebreaker and has announced plans to build two more. There’s no ice in Chinese waters, of course, so the Arctic beckons. It seems clear that China will be a competitor for resources, something that will please the Russians no more than it gladdens hearts in Ottawa.

Tokyo has reacted very strongly to Chinese pressures, announcing more spending on defence and mulling changes to the constitution that forbids Japan to have armed forces for anything but self-defence. Tokyo has sent troops abroad on United Nations missions, and its “self-defence” army, navy, and air force is relatively small, but well-equipped and very effective by all accounts. Could it win a struggle with China? Perhaps not, but the nation’s defence basically rests on its treaties with the United States and the promise of support that Washington offers.

If the lion’s share of blame for the tension in the East China Sea rests on Beijing, Tokyo is not blameless. The present Abe government is very nationalistic, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yakusuni Shrine in late December infuriated the Chinese (and South Koreans and others who suffered under Japanese control during the Second World War). Among those honoured at Yakusini are a thousand or more war criminals, and a prime ministerial visit is widely and correctly seen as proof that Japan has not yet come to terms with its appalling war crimes. Abe is certainly playing to his political base—something Prime Minister Harper can understand—and this might be one area where Canadian diplomacy could try to ease matters by urging Abe to ease up on his inflammatory nationalist pandering.

In truth, however, there is very little Canada can do now other than to urge calm on both Beijing and Tokyo. We might also talk to Washington and ask it to slow down its naval deployments and air reconnaissance in the area to make less likely an accidental Chinese confrontation with the US. But realistically, if the situation spirals out of control, as it might, the United States will inevitably become involved and that will create pressures on Canada to assist militarily. Our armed resources are very thin now, and they will be even leaner in the next year, but the Royal Canadian Navy could deploy a few frigates and, in a pinch, the air force could send a squadron of CF-18s. Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, or so Winston Churchill once said, and Ottawa’s primary efforts should be devoted to pressing Beijing and Tokyo towards a peaceful –perhaps internationally arbitrated--resolution of the dispute. In the heated present climate, neither side is likely to agree, but Canadian efforts should go on.

J.L. Granatstein is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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