Why the Japan-China Senkaku dispute is the most explosive issue in Asia

Reuters

An activist shouts slogans during an anti-Japan protest in Taipei September 23, 2012. Hundreds of activists marched through the streets to protest against Japan's purchase of the disputed islands - called Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyutai in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan. The placard in the background reads, "Everyone defends Diaoyutai together."

Article Highlights

  • Japan feels isolated, and cannot understand why Washington remains neutral over this sovereignty dispute.

    Tweet This

  • Is the United States really agnostic about the outcome of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas?

    Tweet This

  • The time has come to assess how we really want the various sovereignty disputes in key waters to be resolved.

    Tweet This

While there is no scarcity of trouble in the Sino-American relationship, special attention should be paid to the unfolding Sino-Japanese contretemps over the Senkakus (which China and the Republic of China call the Diaoyutais). During the last few years the bulk of Washington's attention has been focused on disputes between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines. Obviously, these are important. Manila is a treaty ally, and Vietnam is a potential strategic partner. In both cases we have dual interests in de-escalation and in helping the two countries stand up for their rights and interests.

But Japan is different. It is arguably Washington's most important ally. A successful Asia strategy is impossible without a strong alliance with Japan. Japan's location makes it essential to any U.S. military operation in Asia. Its strength and resilience make it a reliable partner. Its shared sense of interests and values cement our bond. And, Japan is still a very strong and militarily capable country.

China's incessant incursions into Japanese and disputed waters, and its bullying and badgering of Japan over the Senkakus, have prompted an unproductive nationalist response among some politicians in Japan. But it is Beijing that has created a vicious cycle. Its provocation leads to nationalism. Japanese nationalism in turn sparks strong emotions among the Chinese people. But the Chinese Communist Party also looked the other way as Japanese businesses in China were ransacked and boycotted.

While the United States affirmed that the U.S.-Japan treaty covers the Senkakus, there still is a disagreement between Washington and Tokyo over who has sovereignty over the islands. This disagreement dates back to the 1970s and is yet another manifestation of the careless and rushed way in which Washington handled its normalization with China.

Japan feels isolated, and cannot understand why Washington remains neutral over this sovereignty dispute. Japan has a point. The United States has dined out on a neutral stance -- falling back on apathy toward the outcomes of territorial disputes throughout Asia, as long as they are "resolved peacefully" -- for a long time. This position was reasonable enough when China was weak and unable to press its claims, but those days are over. Is the United States really agnostic about the outcome of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas? Of course not. It does not want conflict, but neither does it want China to control territories that sit along important sea lanes.

Washington also wants to side with its allies. The time has come to assess how we really want the various sovereignty disputes in key waters to be resolved. The assessment should be based both on calculated geostrategic interests as well as the interest we have in supporting friends and allies.

The Sino-Japanese dispute may be the most important test for the United States in Asia in the coming year. The tension between two very powerful countries shows no signs of abating. Japan will not back down from its sovereignty claim. In this case, Beijing is playing with fire. While ambiguity is sometimes necessary, the need for clarity from the United States is pressing. As China challenges the established order -- one that has kept the peace in Asia for three decades -- the United States must take the lead in defending that order. That means standing by an ally. Perhaps even more daunting, it also means the time has come to define our preferred outcomes in territorial disputes between China and our friends.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Dan
Blumenthal

What's new on AEI

Love people, not pleasure
image Oval Office lacks resolve on Ukraine
image Middle East Morass: A public opinion rundown of Iraq, Iran, and more
image Verizon's Inspire Her Mind ad and the facts they didn't tell you
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Event Registration is Closed
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.