Last updated: December 12, 2013 11:52 pm

Crisis management system for Japan and China

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From Prof Dennis J D Sandole.

Sir, One might very well ask how the world’s second and third largest economies have come to the brink of war over two and a half square miles of uninhabited islets and rocks in the East China Sea – a dispute that increasingly threatens to draw in the US. Martin Wolf’s comparison, in “China must not copy the Kaiser’s errors” (Comment, December 4), of the tense situation over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands with the outbreak of the first world war – whose centennial is rapidly approaching – is appropriate. Barbara Tuchman, author of the classic Guns of August – a book that reputedly enabled President John F. Kennedy to prevent the Cuban missile crisis from escalating into a nuclear exchange between the US and USSR – describes in great detail how “foolish monarchs, diplomats, and generals blundered into a war nobody wanted”. So, what is the difference between the 1914 and 1962 crises?

According to crisis decision-making research, highly stressed participants in a rapidly escalating crisis tend to overperceive threat and overreact to it. This dynamic appears to have enveloped Kaiser Wilhelm when, following Russia’s mobilisation, he panicked over the realisation that Germany would probably be forced to fight a two-front war. By contrast, thanks to President Kennedy’s deft handling of his crisis team and signals to Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, the relationship between threat perception and response in that case prevented the outbreak of a third world war.

The upshot for the Chinese-Japanese territorial dispute is that the two countries urgently need to establish a crisis management process, as suggested by US vice-president Joe Biden during his recent trip to the region. A low-cost basis for such an initiative exists in the form of a project established by Dr Tatsushi Arai of the School for International Training (SIT) Graduate Institute and Dr Zheng Wang of Seton Hall University. Supported by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, the project recruits US-based scholars from Japan and China to exchange ideas on how their two countries can address their disagreements, including their dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Dr Arai and Dr Wang plan to visit Tokyo and Beijing in the near future to apprise their respective national leaderships of their project.

We have here an opportunity for a public-private partnership between the US, Chinese and Japanese governments, and Drs Arai and Zheng, to play a “soft power” role in averting war by defusing tensions in the East China Sea before a tragic accident or miscalculation occurs the next time the US decides to fly B-52 bombers into the contested area.

Dennis J D Sandole, Professor of Conflict Resolution and International Relations, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, Arlington, VA, US

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