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Foreign Policy

The US Factor behind the Diaoyu Islands Dispute

Sep 17 , 2012
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

On September 11, 2012, the Japanese government signed a purchase contract for the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islets with the Kurihara family, which Japan refers to as “the private owners” of the islands, regardless of China’s strong opposition. This action seriously escalated current territorial disputes and undermined China-Japan relationship.

Japan’s determination in nationalizing the Islands results from domestic pressure and the country’s miscalculation of China’s positions. At the same time, the US also plays an important role in the Diaoyu Islands dispute. The US “rebalancing” strategy has fueled Japan’s assertiveness in claiming its so-called sovereignty. What is worse, the US has sent out mixed signals concerning the Diaoyu Islands, which enabled Japan to explain the US policies to its advantage and support its related actions. Therefore, it is of importance to clarify the US policy intentions and make Japan realize that the US will not necessarily defend the islands with Japan in any occasions.

Impact of the US “Rebalancing” Strategy on the Diaoyu Islands Disputes

The US set out the strategy of shifting the policy pivot to Asia in 2009. In recent years, the strategy has been comprehensively carried out. Since the strategy aroused questioning and concern, in 2012, the US used the term “rebalancing” to replace “returning” to Asia. No matter how the US nominates this strategy, its key intention is to reshape the order of Asia-Pacific based on regulating China’s behaviors and gain long-term strategic advantage and leadership in the region.

The US is becoming more reliant on its allies, including Japan, to carry out the “rebalancing” strategy. Under current circumstances, it is impossible for the US to implement the “direct containment” as in the Cold War period. The US is faced with domestic problems and the spreading influence of the global economic crisis. In addition, the overseas military activities are consumptive. Therefore, the US turns to carry out its strategy with the support of its allies.

The US has strengthened its relations with the traditional allies such as Japan. The US also made it clear that Japan will play an important role in the “rebalancing”, especially in the military perspective. For instance, the US is seeking to extend the anti-missile deployment to Asia. The current aim is to form the US-Japan-ROK and the US-Japan-Australia anti-missile systems. The US-Japan-ROK trilateral military alliance is also under preparation.

Japan has clearly detected the increasing reliance for support from the US. At the same time, faced with increasing domestic problems, Japan is forced to draw closer to the US. The mutual dependency leads to more assertive and aggressive in its foreign policies.

The Nature of the US Policies Concerning the Diaoyu Islands

The US has been sending out mix signals concerning the Diaoyu Islands, which is beneficial for the US interests. On one hand, the US hopes that Japan will play its role in “regulating” China’s behavior. It confirms with Japan that the Diaoyu Islands are within the scope of the US-Japan treaty, in order to strengthen the US-Japan alliance. At the same time, the US maintains flexibility in its policy by claiming that it will not intervene in the conflicts between Japan and China, which enables the US to walk away from the trouble if Japan makes the situation out of control and harm the US overall strategy.

Unfortunately, Japan has partially interpret the US positions, in order to seek support to claim sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands from the US. In the context of the vessel collision incident between China and Japan in 2010, the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton claimed during her meeting with the then Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that the Diaoyu Islands fall within the scope of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Since then, Japan has confirmed with the US again and again for this position. Japan utilized this as a guarantee for defending the Diaoyu Islands, especially when concrete conflicts break out with China. Currently, this “assurance” obviously promotes Japan’s confidence in escalating the tension.

However, the truth is that the Japanese side deliberately neglect the other side of signals sent from the US. The US also stresses that it will support neither Japan nor China in the territorial disputes. As early as the year 1996, the then US Ambassador to Japan stated in the New York Times that the US would not interfere in the disputes for the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. After the so called “purchasing” of the Islands, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell reaffirmed this position again and called on related parties to calm down. Recently, the US Defense Minister specially arranged for a visit to Japan before his scheduled visit to China. He reaffirmed the above signals again to Japan.

With the implementation of the “rebalancing” strategy, the US will get more involved in Asian affairs. Maintaining regional security and stability will still be consistent with the US interests. China has clearly demonstrated determination and confidence in defending territorial integrity and sovereignty, which is the core interest of the country. It is unlikely that the US will totally neglect China’s appeal, since China is such an important player in the region.

Therefore, the US positions concerning the Diaoyu Islands are unlikely to present drastic change in the near future. It is unwise for Japan to continue to partially interpret the US policy and over-rely on the US support for occupying the territory which it has no rights to claim. Japan will definitely get itself into trouble if it continues to play with fire.

Su Xiaohui is a research fellow at the Department of International Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies

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