On my modest office “power wall” of photos and career memorabilia are two items that lend some perspective on U.S.-China relations, as well as, I immodestly admit, my early career. One is a framed original of the one sheet People’s Daily “extra” dated December 16, 1978 that, in all red characters, proclaimed and provided the text of the U.S.-China joint communique announcing that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be established in two weeks’ time, i.e., on January 1, 1979.
The other is a photo of me—a junior Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Liaison Office—standing beside then U.S. Secretary of Commerce Juanita M. Kreps in the Great Hall of the People, reading into a microphone the Chinese translation of her speech announcing basic agreements opening up trade, science and technology exchanges between the two countries as a gallery of Chinese and U.S. officials standing on a tiered platform behind us looked on. By the time of U.S.-China diplomatic “normalization,” we were playing “catch up” with the Japanese in commercial and political relations.
Widespread Japanese protests against renewing the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty in 1970 were an impetus to returning sovereignty over Okinawa and a number of specified islands. But the reversion treaty made no reference to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. While subsequent clarifications of the U.S. position confirmed that the uninhabited islands nearest Taiwan (the Republic of China, in 1971 still recognized by the United States as the sole government of China), were included as territories returned from U.S. trusteeship to Japanese “administrative control,” reversion—in terms of U.S. policy and intent—was not a return of “sovereignty” over the islands to Japan. Neither side, much less the ROC, was interested in raising minor issues like the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that could upset or derail the delicate negotiations toward geopolitical realignments of epochal importance taking place at the time.
In 1971, and essentially since 1945, the U.S. position had consistently been that sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands—being claimed by three parties, China, Taiwan (ROC), and Japan—is undetermined. The U.S. “takes no position” on the merits or claims of the three parties.
Whether it was the Cairo Declaration’s demand that Japan return all “stolen territories” or “acknowledgement” of China’s position on Taiwan with the U.S.-China Shanghai Communique; there has rarely been a reason to make a specific point concerning sovereignty of Diaoyu/Senkaku; except, when Japan issued official denials that any dispute existed over the sovereignty to the islands, or incidents like the 2010 Chinese fishing boat collision and arrest incident. Rather, it has been possible and desirable to leave the issue of sovereignty “on the shelf” and for “resolution by (wiser) future generations,” where it was put, respectively, by Tanaka and Zhou in 1972 and Deng Xiaoping and Japanese Foreign Minister Sonoda (in the context of concluding their Treaty of Peace and Friendship) in 1978.
That is, until last year’s “nationalization” by the Noda government.
Undoubtedly, the Noda government decision—firmly backed by the now ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) opposition and its leader, current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo—was a monumental blunder, hugely detrimental to Japan’s short and long-term interests. The two questions that must be answered about Japan’s action are: “Why did they do what they did?” and “Why did the American government not try to stop them?”
I have tried to answer both questions in numerous posts on my Forbes.com “Whither Japan” blog. First, with a tit-for-tat response from China certain, it is hard to conceive of any Japanese calculation that did not rest on a firm belief in a strong U.S. backing of Japan’s action, if indeed the aim of “nationalization” was not to create a crisis that would require the U.S. to recommit itself to the mutual defense treaty with Japan. Further, the “firm belief” of Japanese decision makers could not have been arrived at without explicit assurances—or perhaps even encouragement—from Washington, D.C.
Second, evidence of U.S. acquiescence comes in the form of an October 31, 2012 interview in the Asahi Shimbun with Japanese ambassador to the U.S. Sasae Kenichiro, which states that before the decision to nationalize, Japan solicited the stance of the United States and was informed that the U.S. “does not object” (hantai shinai). This stance essentially altered the long time “neutral” U.S. policy toward sovereign claimants in favor of Japan and was also a monumental mistake by the Obama administration that was contrary to U.S. interests as well as the interests of Japan, not to mention China or Taiwan. Had Washington firmly objected to this change in the status quo; nationalization would not have taken place. Furthermore, there is—against mounting evidence of its irrelevancy or even counter-productivity—the seemingly psychological dependence upon and belief in the indispensability of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty by political and bureaucratic establishments in the U.S. and Japan..
On the U.S. side, we can hope the Obama administration and a Kerry State Department will begin staffing up China and Japan expertise as a matter of urgency. We should note that China’s new foreign minister, Wang Yi, former ambassador to Tokyo, is one of its most experienced Japan specialists. Hopefully, the Abe government will show willingness to make concessions after the July Upper Diet House elections.
Longer term—optimistically during the second Obama term—we will begin to see willingness in Washington to engage China in the search for what Beijing is calling a “new power relationship.” What is needed is a relationship of equals, recognizing that China is naturally and legitimately the leading power in East Asia (mainly, though not exclusively, “soft power”) and that China’s growing power in no way threatens the U.S. or Japan.
What could be—and probably should be—the new geostrategic paradigm in East Asia is the “concert of powers” order prescribed by Australian National University professor Hugh White in his recent book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. White writes that this order, requiring non-hegemonic relations among autonomous powers, would require a dismantling of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Dismantling the alliance, Japan’s (non-nuclear) armed neutrality, and U.S. relinquishment of its policy of military hegemony are the elements essential to a more stable and sustainable peaceful order in East Asia. Against all expectations, the Senkaku/Diaoyu crisis could provide the impetus to advance toward these goals.
Stephen M. Harner is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and international banker (Citibank/Deustche Bank) in China and Japan. He is currently President of Yangtze Century Ltd. (Hong Kong) and contributes the “Whither Japan” blog to Forbes.com.