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Foreign Policy

Conflict Prevention in the China-Japan Rift over the East China Sea Islands

Jan 23 , 2014

Most impartial observers of the China-Japan imbroglio over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands believe it has reached a dangerous point.  One Japanese analyst has described the dispute as a prisoner’s dilemma, with both countries knowing that their best interests are served by cooperation but being hindered by mutual distrust. He suggests as a solution that China agree not to enter the waters around the islands, that Japan agree not to build or otherwise occupy the islands, and that the two governments work on confidence-building measures to create trust.  Such a package makes eminently good sense, since it would shelve the sovereignty issue and make the use of force much less likely than is now the case. 

The United States has an important place in the dispute. After all, it maneuvered to bring about the current challenges over sovereignty by taking the position in the early 1970s that sovereignty no longer belonged to Japan but did not necessarily belong to either China or Taiwan. The US grant to Japan of “administrative rights” over the Senkakus did not amount to sovereign control.  Yet various US officials have since also made clear that the US-Japan Security Treaty binds the United States to help Japan protect the Senkakus along with the rest of the Ryukyu island chain. Thus, the United States is hardly neutral on the matter, and therein lies the present danger. 

To put things bluntly, the United States needs to rein in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the same manner that it reined in Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian when he seemed intent on moving toward independence during his second administration (2005-2008).  The US position on Taiwan in fact bears some similarity to its position between China and Japan today.  Washington has a security obligation to a longtime ally under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and presumably will deter any Chinese move to take Taiwan by force. But the United States also professes friendship with the PRC and acknowledges Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan (in the sense that the US agreed in 1972 that Taiwan is a part of China).  At the moment the Taiwan Strait is quiet and there is no talk from Taiwan’s leadership of pursuing independence.  But the United States continues to provide major arms to Taiwan, and the security commitment implied in the TRA remains in place. 

Now the United States has to deal with Abe, a nationalist leader equally as stubborn as Chen Shui-bian.  Washington avoided the trap Chen set when President Clinton reassured Beijing that he subscribed to standing US policy against Taiwan independence, two Chinas, or recognition of Taiwan’s separate status in international organizations.  President Obama should quietly follow that example.  He should clarify to Tokyo that the US security umbrella over Japan does not give Abe carte blanche to “defend” the Senkakus, and he should reassure Beijing that the United States wants to see a diplomatic resolution of the issue.  Although Abe has said more than once that he is open to talking with Chinese leaders about the islands, most of his signals have been in the other direction—insisting on Japanese sovereignty, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, aiming at constitutional revision, increasing Japan’s defense budget, and calling for a larger role for the Japanese military.  He has given China’s hawks a perfect excuse not just for closing the door to negotiations with Japan and declaring an air defense zone over the island area, but also for framing the issue as part of the US “pivot” to Asia and containment of China.  Unless Washington obtains restraint by Abe, the situation will escalate, raising the prospect of the United States having to become militarily involved in Japan’s defense.  Even short of that, China-US relations will take a severe hit if Sino-Japanese tensions increase.  

These circumstances underscore just how strongly Cold War alignments and strategic thinking continue to exert significant influence over international relationships in East Asia.  And that is bad news for peace and stability in the region.  All parties need to take a step back, dampen the hostile rhetoric, and reassess their fundamental interests.  Those clearly lie in recognizing how much their economic futures are interlocked, reminding themselves of the central importance for the region of positive China-US relations, and developing a new code of conduct to govern maritime affairs and the handling of disputed territory.  A major part of that reevaluation for Beijing and Tokyo must include putting aside the dispute over the historical record of the islands and the unfortunate history of China-Japan relations in general.  Historical memory is central to the territorial issue, but only if the latter is separated from the former can a serious China-Japan dialogue take place.  

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective.  His latest book is Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner, 2013).

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