The gloomiest man in Canberra, Australia’s noted strategic expert Hugh White, has added a new edge to his warning about possible war between the United States and China. He now suggests that precisely such a conflict could arise from the sustained tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and perhaps as soon as 2013.
White makes an important point. He is correct to highlight the perverse contradictions of the world’s three richest countries being willing to risk peace and prosperity over something so seemingly trivial as contested maritime boundaries. He is right also to emphasize that this is not really about proximate causes — the dispute over who owns certain rocks and islets and the potentially resource-rich seas around.
Instead, the tensions and even confrontation of the past few months reflect deeper anxieties in China-Japan and ultimately China-America relations. These Professor White relates to the structural causes of the ruinous Peloponnesian Wars of the 5th century BC: power, pride and fear.