James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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What Should Washington Do About Rising Tensions in the East China Sea?

by James M. Lindsay
April 23, 2013

Chinese marine surveillance ships patrol the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters). Chinese marine surveillance ships patrol the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters).


The great English novelist  Charlotte Brontë once complained, “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!” Obama administration officials today have some sympathy for Ms. Brontë’s lament. This morning their good friend, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, greatly complicated their diplomacy in northeast Asia with a vow to use force if China attempts to land forces on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The vow is sure to increase tensions that had seemed to be easing over the isolated and barren rocks in the East China Sea that may (or may not) sit atop significant oil and gas reserves.

Abe’s tough talk comes just days after three members of his cabinet visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.  The shrine honors Japan’s war dead, including fourteen so-called Class A war criminals from World War II. Japan’s neighbors see official visits to Yasukuni as clear evidence that Japan fails to understand the enormity of the crimes it inflicted on the rest of Asia seven decades ago. South Korea responded to the Yasukuni visit by canceling its foreign minister’s planned trip to Tokyo this weekend. Many Japanese parliamentarians, however, don’t seem inclined to be conciliatory. This morning 168 of them visited the shrine.

Even if the controversy over the Yasukuni Shrine evaporated, and it won’t, the Obama administration faces tough decisions over the Senkaku dispute. As my colleague Sheila Smith argues in a Contingency Planning Memorandum that CFR released today on tensions in the East China Sea, the stakes are high:

Until recently, this territorial dispute was little more than a minor irritant in Sino-Japanese relations. However, against the backdrop of China’s growing military power, the island dispute has increased concerns in Tokyo about Beijing’s regional intentions and the adequacy of Japan’s security, while stoking nationalistic politics in both capitals. Political miscalculation in Tokyo or Beijing, or unintended military interactions in and around the disputed islands, could escalate further, leading to an armed clash between Asia’s two largest powers. The United States, as a treaty ally of Japan but with vital strategic interests in fostering peaceful relations with China, has a major stake in averting such a clash and resolving the dispute, if possible.

So Washington has to find a way to dissuade China without jeopardizing other U.S. interests in play with Beijing (think North Korea for starters). It simultaneously has to reassure Tokyo of U.S. support for its claim to administrative control of the Senkaku Islands while making it clear to Abe and his government that they are not free to act as they see fit. This diplomatic tightrope walk could easily be disrupted by an accident or miscalculation. Military officers on the scene sometimes misunderstand or exceed their orders, and third parties such as fisherman or civilian activists can trigger chains of events that no one anticipated.

All in all, it’s a significant diplomatic challenge for the White House. So I strongly encourage you to read Sheila’s article to see what options the Obama administration has and why even the best of intentions could lead to pretty lousy results.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Matt

    China and Japan are caught up in a positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop system will always blow up unless negative feedback is introduced.

    The US must make China experience pain – the negative feedback. Pain can come in the form of trade or anything, but the pain must be real.

  • Posted by fj1205

    What Japanese said
    Sun Kawasaki, international intelligence chief of the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan said Diaoyutai its affiliated islands is not inherent territory of Japan. He further explained that the Chinese influence in the 14th century, Chinese military had been extended to the Diaoyu Islands and their adjacent waters, while the Diaoyu Islands belong to Taiwan, Taiwan belongs to China, that the Diaoyutai and its affiliated islands belong to Chinese. He believes that maintaining the status quo is the most advantageous method to Japan.
    “The Tiaoyu Islands (Senkaku Island) are China’s Territory”

    by Kiyoshi Inoue
    Professor of History department
    Kyoto University, Japan

    “Proceeding from the Japanese people stand of opposition to militarism, one should reject the name Senkaku Islands, which was adopted by Japanese Militarism after seizing them from China. Use the only correct name in history, namely, the Tiaoyu (Diaoyutai) Island”
    ———– Japanese historian Kiyoshi Inoue. For more info, refer to his 278 pages book “Senkaku Retto”.

    In June 2004, another Japanese professor Tadayoshi Murata of Yokohama National University, published “Senkaku Islands vs the Diaoyu Islands Dispute” (some info is here) and supports that “Since the Ming Dynasty, Chinese maps and documents of many kinds marked Diaoyu Islands, Huangwei Islands, Chiwei Islands as being lying within the territory of China” . What does the view of some Japanese scholars tell us ? . Small islands – Big problem: Senkaku/Diaoyu

    Professor Murata said, “We tend to take the opinion of the government, political parties and media as being the correct views and accept them readily; however, those opinions do not necessarily represent the truth. To us scholars, what is important is what is real, what is true, not the national interest; over this point, political parties and media have the same problem.”

    The islands which are being called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and to which the Japanese Government claims title have historically been definitely China’s territory. As the victor in the 1894-95 war with Ching (China), Japan seized these islands along with Taiwan and the Penghu Islands and incorporated them into Okinawa Prefecture as Japanese territory. The Cairo Declaration jointly issued by China, the United States and British during World War II stipulates the return to China by Japan of all the territory she had stolen from China during and after the Japan-Ching war, including Taiwan and Manchuria. The Potsdam Proclamation issued by the allies stipulates that Japan must carry out the clauses of the Cairo Declaration. These islands have been automatically reverted to China as its territory just as Taiwan has been automatically returned to China from the time Japan unconditionally accepted the Cairo Declaration and the Posdam Proclamation and surrendered to the allies including China. It follows that these islands are territory of the People’s Republic of China, the only authority over the entire China.

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