When China’s Lieutenant-General Ren Haiquan took the podium in front of an audience filled with representatives from various Asian militaries in Melbourne, Australia, last month, he attacked “some people” who were threatening to repeat the mistakes of WWII. ”Flames of the war ignited by fascist countries engulfed the whole region, and many places, including Darwin in Australia, were bombed,” he said. In a crazy coincidence, perhaps, fireworks thundered into the sky overhead as he spoke.
A delegation of Japanese military officers were in the audience. “Visibly displeased at the dig,” David Lague reports for Reuters, “Lieutenant General Yoshiaki Nakagawa left with his fellow officers as soon as the speeches concluded.”
China’s military hawks like Lt-General Ren are becoming more vocal and more powerful. They push “short, sharp wars” with neighboring countries to take control of disputed territories in the East and South China Seas. They urge China to “strike first”, “prepare for conflict” or “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys.”
Some hawks take the aggressive rhetoric to an even higher level: “Since we have decided that the US is bluffing in the East China Sea, we should take this opportunity to respond to these empty provocations with something real,” wrote Air Force Colonel Dai Xu in China’s Global Times last August. “This includes Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, which are the three running dogs of the United States in Asia … We only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel.”
“The military hawks appear to make up only a small proportion of China’s officer corps,” writes Michael Richardson, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, in the Straits Times. ”But their influence, magnified by modern communications and social media, may be far more extensive than their numbers suggest. Their influence may also be shaping views and actions in the Chinese chain of military command.”
China’s neighbors see this aggressive posturing and react accordingly. Japan’s new Prime Minister, a China hawk, has put forward the first increases to Japan’s defense budget in 11 years, citing China’s belligerent behavior around disputed islands in the East China Sea.
This hostile environment, coupled with repeated tense military encounters on the high seas, makes a high-profile accident all the more likely. That’s not a good sign for this region.