So writes MIT associate professor M. Taylor Fravel in the WSJ. To sum up, China is most likely to use force when it’s in a position of relative weakness, and when it own no piece of the territory it claims. Kind of like the Senkakus:
To start, China has usually only used force in territorial disputes with its most militarily capable neighbors. These include wars or major clashes with India, Russia and Vietnam (several times), as well as crises involving Taiwan. These states have had the greatest ability to check China’s territorial ambitions. In disputes with weaker states, such as Mongolia or Nepal, Beijing has eschewed force because it could negotiate from a position of strength. Japan is now China’s most powerful maritime neighbor, with a modern navy and a large coast guard.
China has also used force most frequently in disputes over offshore islands such as the Senkakus. Along its land border, China has used force only in about one-fifth of 16 disputes. By contrast, China has used force in half of its four island disputes. Islands are seen as possessing much more strategic, military and economic value because they influence sea-lane security and may hold vast stocks of hydrocarbons and fish.
In addition, China has mostly used force to strengthen its position in disputes where it has occupied little or none of the land that it claims. In 1988, for example, China clashed with Vietnam as it occupied six coral reefs that are part of the Spratly Islands. China had claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys for decades—but had not controlled any part of them before this occupation.
Sadly, there’s another destabilizing factor out there, too. And one of its names is Dokdo:
The final destabilizing factor in the Senkaku standoff is that both sides are simultaneously engaged in other island disputes. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak recently broke with tradition and became the first Seoul leader to visit the disputed Dokdo (Takeshima) Islands, which are occupied by the Koreans but also claimed by Japan. Meanwhile, China has been dueling with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Tokyo and Beijing may both conclude that whoever prevails in the Senkakus will have a better chance at prevailing in these other disputes.
On a related note, Japan wants to develop its own amphibious assault capabilities, a.k.a., marines, a push that has not gone unnoticed in the press over here. Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that Korea was willing to sell the Japanese the tools to do it.