Quarrels between China and several of its neighbors over territorial issues in the South China Sea have received considerable attention in the international news media. Beijing’s confrontations with Manila and Hanoi earlier this year were marked by exceptional amounts of vitriol coming from the various capitals. Territorial spats in the East China Sea involving China and Japan, as well as disputes between Japan and South Korea in the Sea of Japan, have received somewhat less attention from the outside world. But nasty incidents have erupted in recent weeks, and the potential for unpleasant outcomes in those arenas may be even greater than in the South China Sea.
Washington definitely needs to pay more attention to those less prominent controversies. Both Japan and South Korea are close allies of the United States; indeed, the U.S. has explicit bilateral defense treaties with Tokyo and Seoul. And all three countries are crucial economic partners of the United States. It is imperative that Washington make its position on these controversies far clearer than it has done to this point. The primary goal should be to reduce the risk to the United States and its interests if the quarrels spiral out of control.
The dispute between China and Japan involves a chain of five uninhabited islets known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. The controversy has simmered for decades with periodic flare ups, but matters escalated in April when firebrand Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, perhaps the most prominent right-wing Japanese nationalist, proposed that the Tokyo government buy three of the islands from their private landowner to discourage any Chinese moves to implement Beijing’s claims. That proposal caused the Chinese government to issue a sharp protest.
Matters became even uglier in mid-August when 14 Chinese activists landed on the islets and were then arrested by Japanese authorities. Shortly thereafter, 10 Japanese activists, including 5 Tokyo assembly members, landed on the largest islet. That move produced large, angry demonstrations in several Chinese cities, with vandals overturning and damaging dozens of Japanese-brand automobiles.
The bilateral contretemps between South Korea and Japan has also flared to an alarming extent. The long-standing competing claims to uninhabited islets (called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea) have been a source of periodic irritation in relations between Tokyo and Seoul. But tensions became worse when South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made an ostentatious visit to the disputed island chain in mid-August. The Japanese government recalled its ambassador to Seoul indefinitely to protest the visit. That response was even stronger than Tokyo’s brief recall of its ambassador to Beijing following the landing of Chinese activists on the Senkakus.
To casual American observers, both controversies probably seem esoteric and a little silly. It is understandable to wonder why the opposing sides attach so much importance to some uninhabited spits of rock. But to the parties directly involved, there are important issues at stake. On the purely practical level, both the Senkakus/Diaoyus and Takeshima/Dokdo are surrounded by valuable fishing waters. There are also indications of significant oil and gas reserves as well as potential mineral deposits. And there are important strategic implications. The island chains are located astride important shipping lanes for both naval and commercial vessels. The Japanese are especially worried about possible Chinese control of the Senkakus. An official told me in the late 1990s that Beijing’s control of those islets, located roughly midpoint between Taiwan and Okinawa, would be a dagger pointed at the heart of the latter.
That notion might seem a little overwrought, but one should not underestimate the role of emotions and national pride in these disputes. The contending parties cannot even agree on the correct names of the island chains or the bodies of water surrounding them. One must be careful not to make the gaffe of mentioning the “Senkakus” in conservations with Chinese nationals. Likewise, one dare not make the blunder of using the term “Sea of Japan” while in South Korea (it is called the East Sea there.) And a participant at a policy conference featuring American and Japanese scholars a few years ago discovered just how high emotions can run when he committed the offense of referring to “Dokdo.”
As these disputes escalate, the United States is in an increasingly awkward and potentially risky position. Although it is unlikely that either controversy would lead to an armed conflict, that possibility can no longer be ruled out. A military incident between Japan and South Korea would be a diplomatic nightmare for the United States, since whichever side Washington backed, it would greatly damage relations with the other party. And strict neutrality announced in the midst of bloodshed would likely poison relations with both countries.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu quarrel is potentially even more dangerous to the United States. It’s not clear if the bilateral defense treaties with Tokyo and Seoul cover the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, but the pact with Japan definitely seems to cover the Senkakus as part of the defense obligation involving Okinawa. Moreover, Japan effectively controls the territory around the Senkakus, meaning that any military move by China to assert control would be interpreted in Tokyo as a clear act of aggression. Conversely, South Korea effectively exercises jurisdiction over the neighborhood of Dokdo. A conservative power like Japan is unlikely to launch a war to challenge that de facto control.
Washington needs to make clear to both Seoul and Tokyo that it will not take sides in their bilateral quarrel under any circumstances. The situation involving the escalating dispute between Beijing and Tokyo is more difficult and worrisome. U.S. leaders need to convey to their Japanese counterparts that, regardless of language in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the United States will not back Japan in any armed conflict over disputed territories.
The mere prospect of such an entanglement ought to be a cautionary note to future U.S. leaders about the dangers entailed in signing formal defense treaties with any country. It is doubtful that the American architects of the pact with Japan envisioned the prospect of their country being dragged into war over a chain of uninhabited islets. The United States has no interests at stake in the East China Sea to warrant taking such a risk, and Washington needs to act promptly and explicitly to eliminate that possibility.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and studies on international affairs.