If you live in the West, an Asian dispute over a few tiny, minor Pacific islands may seem like small potatoes.
Except that these tubers are in a microwave, and they will blow up. Go big or go home, is China’s motto, and Beijing will not willingly rest its own spuds on the couch.
At issue: several islands in the East China Sea whose names differ depending on who asserts sovereignty. To the Chinese, they are Diaoyu — to the Japanese, Senkaku. The islands, formerly privately owned by a Japanese citizen, were sold to his government. To China, that smacked of a national land grab, and they’re protesting. Loudly. With ships and men, although not, so far, with armed response.
Partly, the issue is visible land. In part, the contest is over what might lie under the land, particularly under the nearby sea. In addition, there is the history of Japan’s invasion of China during World War II, plus the fact that Taiwan is putting in its claim for the islands.
The real issue, however, is the continuing and growing disparity between the available fighting forces of China and that of Japan.
There is no question that both nations contain aging populations, and that both are averse to or unavailable for in-migration. Japanese who at birth had a life expectancy of 60 are now well into their 80s, and the Chinese are not far behind. There is virtually no immigrant class in China, and the famously xenophobic Japanese only reluctantly hire temporary Chinese laborers to help handle harvests. After the harvest is in, back they shuttle to China.
China, however, has an ace up its sleeve. Rather, 34 million of them.
Due to the one-child policy, combined with the past and current popularity of female-specific fetal abortion, China possesses a vast population of extra boys who – as all parents know – will become young men in the wink of an eye. What then? What does the most populous nation on earth do with four Sydney, Australias, full of young, ambitious, aggressive, testosterone-filled youths?
What nations have always done: hurl them against others.
There’s hardly a choice. It’s either channel young male energies for war or accept constant rages and civil unrest at home. If you had a family of six boys fighting each other and making life hard for their elder sisters, which would you choose? Keep them at home to argue and battle, or send them out to the soccer pitch?
Only there’s no equivalent of soccer for 34 million men. That’s what the military has always been, a place for aggressive, pugnacious young men to use up their energies on behalf of their nations.
Thirty-four million young men, of course, cannot form the armed forces of China. No nation on Earth will be able to afford – or control – such a vast force. Yet Chinese generals and admirals will regard several million as expendable, cannon fodder in an age of drones. Selectively tossing them against neighboring nations – only India will have a comparable, though still slightly smaller, population of young men – is realistically the only hope of China to reduce the pressure of a population of men it cannot easily control.
It is a regrettable but probably essential move so that China will not implode. From the Chinese point of view, better that other nations bear the brunt of its population error (the one-child mandate plus permitted abortion of female fetuses) than that its population be attacked by their own sons and brothers.
Even now, China is making calls for increased military recruitment, and its military spending has increased, causing worry around the world.
Lately, there have been appeals within China to relax the one-child requirement, to allow families to have two children. So many couples already manage to get around one-child – by paying fines, alleging tribal or special status, even moving to China’s west, where fewer restrictions apply – that one-child has become less implacable.
But it is the specter of continued, skewed overproduction of baby boys – who in twenty years’ time are active men – that frightens China’s planners. As it should.
The image of constant warfare, of decades of Chinese penetration into neighboring countries, is one that should make us all take heed.
This little skirmish over a couple of Japanese islands? The tip of the iceberg.