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Foreign Policy

US Involvement in the Diaoyu Islands Dispute: Intentions and Consequences

Aug 29 , 2012
  • Lu Jinghua

    Research Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

As the territory dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands continues to escalate, the United States and Japan decided to conduct a joint military exercise in the western Pacific starting from August 21st to September 26th. As allies, the two countries have held joint military drills before, however this is the first time they will undertake military exercises on islands. Although Japan’s Ministry of Defense declared that this exercise was not targeted at any imaginary enemy, an anonymous official from the MOD was reported by Sankei Shinbun to say that the scenario is actually to practice taking Diaoyu Island and its affiliated isles back if they were ever attacked and occupied by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China.

The US has always assumed an ambiguous attitude toward the Diaoyu Island issue, saying it would support neither Japan nor China. The joint exercise is therefore viewed as a turning point of its stand, showing that America’s stance on the Sino-Japan territory dispute is changing from strategic vagueness to strategic clarity, signaling open support for Japan. Why has the US “changed” its policy?

First, it is a part of America’s rebalance towards the Asia Pacific. In recent years, the US has taken a series of steps to realize its strategic pivot, especially in military area. According to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, 60 percent of US Navy forces will be deployed in the Pacific by 2020. Against this background, it seems important for the US to further deepen its military cooperation with Japan, one of its major allies in Asia. Thus this is also the time to show that the US will stand with its allies in crisis.

Secondly, the ultimate goal of the US is to contain China. Although US officials have time and again said the US welcomes China’s rise, in reality their various attempts to contain China, a country some Americans regard as a potential threat to US hegemony, has been so obvious to all. One month ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in the 19th ASEAN Regional Forum and related meetings, and visited 9 countries in 13 days, among which 6 are China’s neighboring countries. During her visit, she not only reiterated America’s interests in South China Sea, but also claimed that the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan covers Diaoyu Island issue. It was an announcement of US support for Japan against China over the Diaoyu Island issue.

Finally, it is believed that the tension in East Asia will benefit the US as it gives the US more bargaining chips in dealing with East Asian countries. This tension will also for sure benefit the US defense industry.

As to Japanese government, which is being beset with troubles internally and externally, America’s attitude adjustment is of course great news. Japan needs “US backing” in confronting China and the joint military exercise is a demonstration of their joint power against China.

The United States has always claimed that it does not regard China as its enemy and it wants to build strategic mutual trust with China. However, its involvement in the Diaoyu Island issue seems to run against what it has said. It shows that the US is not really maintaining a neutral stance in the Sino-Japan dispute, but rather is bolstering up Japan in confronting China. What the US has done will surely make the Chinese more suspicious and doubtful of the true US intentions.

What the United States has to realize is that it is incorrect and short-sighted to achieve rebalance by flexing its military muscle and involving itself in bilateral disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. The result of such actions will only lead to more confrontation rather than cooperation. It neither corresponds to development trends in the Asia-Pacific region, nor is it good for America’s long-term interest in this region.

Lu Jinghua is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Center on China-America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science for the People’s Liberation Army.   

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