Who will win in a world of …. LASER CATS and
hegemonic stability theory?

In an interesting thought experiment at Foreign Policy, James R. Holmes (an associate professor at the Naval War College) asks whether China could take Japan on the high seas.

In July, China’s East Sea Fleet conducted an exercise simulating an amphibious assault on the islands. China’s leaders are clearly thinking about the unthinkable. And with protesters taking to the streets to smash Japanese cars and attack sushi restaurants, their people may be behind them. So who would win the unlikely prospect of a clash of titans in the Pacific: China or Japan?¬†

His answer is a modified “China, maybe:” China has more hardware, but each of its ships are lower quality, while Japan has both a high-quality navy and a better training program. In part, he compares his analysis to Theodore Roosevelt’s book on the naval war of 1812, which is doubly fitting because (a) bicentennials are fun! and (b) T.R.’s involvement with U.S. naval policy explains part of why we are so engaged in East Asia even today.

It’s an interesting article, the sort of thing that I enjoy reading in Proceedings every couple of years, and it does make you remember (if you needed reminding) just how potentially kick-ass the Self-Defense Force is–and how much more powerful it could be if Japan spent, say, 2 percent of GDP per year on its non-military.

But it has all the relevance to real-world policy of the Saturday¬† Night Live sketch “Laser Cats.”

Why? Because somehow, in a piece ostensibly concerned with compellence, force, and the regional balance of power, Holmes forgets to mention nuclear weapons.

Based on his institutional affiliation, I’m going to guess that Holmes has as much patience for Nina Tannenwald’s nuclear taboo thesis as I do. But that makes it all the more urgent for Holmes to explain why China wouldn’t win this by merely threatening to add a third nuclear memorial to Japan’s existing sites. Frankly, if I were a Japanese version of myself, this sort of scenario would make me tear my hair out about the fact that Tokyo is still committed to not building a nuclear arsenal—a puzzle that should keep realists up at night every night—but it wouldn’t change my conclusion that there won’t be a shooting war between Japan and China over these islands. No Japanese leader is going to take the chance of seeing a single Japanese civilian die for some islands that only extreme right-wingers care about.

Holmes’s article reminds us of why it’s a good idea for IR scholars to remain engaged with policy. In his analysis, he neglects to account for how a war could break out–to take the classic Fearon model, is it that Beijing and Tokyo can’t work out a time-share over Senkaku?–or to account for how the actions of other regional players (the Koreas, Taiwan, or the United States) would affect each side’s calculation of the costs and benefits of engaging in the dumbest great-power war since Fashoda didn’t happen. Most important, although he’s probably limited by his initial pitch to the editors of FP, the question is not so much what the conflict over Senkaku means today, but what it implies for China’s rise. Will it be peaceful? Or will internal frictions drive China’s leaders to set aside their longstanding policy of settling border disputes by negotiation and instead do something rash? (As a thought experiment: Would it matter if Bo Xilai, and not Hu Jintao, were China’s president?)

The conflict over Asia’s barren rocks may be as consequential to the prospects for peace as the ongoing dispute over a handful of settlements in the deserts of Palestine. Given that Japan’s other territorial dispute, over Dokdo/Takeshima with South Korea, has helped to nearly scuttle attempts at a Korean-Japanese rapprochement, there’s something important to be said about them. But using them as a springboard to write a 2012 version of Red Storm Rising isn’t the most productive use of analytical energy.