Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Preventing a Clash in the East China Sea

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
April 24, 2013

An aerial view shows Japan Coast Guard patrol ship, fishing boats from Taiwan and Taiwan's Coast Guard vessel sailing side by side near the disputed islands in the East China Sea. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters). An aerial view shows Japan Coast Guard patrol ship, fishing boats from Taiwan and Taiwan's Coast Guard vessel sailing side by side near the disputed islands in the East China Sea. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters).

CFR’s Senior Fellow for Japan studies, Sheila A. Smith, published a new CFR Contingency Planning Memo (CPM), “A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea.”  In it, she argues that the United States should encourage peaceful dispute resolution to the avoid further escalation in tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  Below, CPA staff write a guest post about this aspect of the CPM.

Since the Obama administration pivoted towards Asia, U.S.-China relations have been complicated by territorial disputes in the seas of the Asia-Pacific. China’s assertiveness in the region is posing new challenges for U.S. foreign policy over the last years – first in the South China Sea and more recently in the East China Sea where Japan and China have a long-standing dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. These historical disagreements escalated in September 2012 when Japan purchased three of the islands from its private owner to prevent their use for provocations by nationalistic actors. Yet, China perceived the purchase as a threat to its own maritime interests and proceeded to assert its control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In a new CPA Contingency Planning Memo, CFR senior fellow Sheila Smith lays out how an unintended military incident or a political miscalculation in a show of sovereignty in the East China Sea could lead to the escalation of the conflict, despite neither side being keen on using force.

A potential armed clash of the two largest powers in Asia does not only threaten Washington’s economic, political, and strategic interests in the region but also carries a lot of symbolic weight. U.S. treaty obligations and its longstanding alliance with Japan raise the expectations for U.S. involvement in case of a military escalation: “Japan’s postwar policy of military self-restraint and reliance on the United States for strategic protection, including its continued abnegation of nuclear weapons, would likely come to an end if the United States chose not to defend Japan against Chinese aggression.” Beyond the significance for the future of U.S.-Japan relations, this case could signal to other allies what to expect from the U.S. in the face of a rising China.

To prevent the escalation into an armed conflict, Smith recommends the United States encourage peaceful dispute resolution, urge Japan and China to avoid any steps that might escalate tensions, and remind Beijing that unilateral actions will not change U.S. recognition of Japan’s administrative control over the islands. The United States should also intensify efforts to create multilateral maritime risk reduction measures in the Asia-Pacific region, including the promotion of Chinese participation in regular Rim of the Pacific, regional fisheries and coast guard exercises. Finally, crisis management and defense consultations with Japan are necessary to develop clear alliance crisis procedures and to demonstrate U.S. preparedness for military assistance in case of an armed clash in and around the disputed islands.

“A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea” provides practical recommendations for U.S. policymakers to de-escalate tensions and avert a clash that could not only harm U.S. interests in the region but subvert the strategic goals of a rebalance towards Asia.

Access Sheila A. Smith’s new CPM, “A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea,” here.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by True US

    China doesn’t have the gut to goes head to head with Japan. They know they will loose in the shot-out or short conflit

  • Posted by EyesonU

    Wow! I just can’t wait to see the war break out between China and Japan in the East China Sea – consequently, who will be the most suffered? —- it’s time for the globe to clean up the population. However, in the World War 2, Japan had dreamed to be a superpower of Octopus in the Pacific Ocean – then now, what does japan dream to be? LOL

  • Posted by zeus m. familiaran

    Excellent analytical exposition. Good governance requires perpetual checking and balancing. to my personal opinion, even if when healthy resolution has been identified and actively in place, requires more so the need to revisit if methodologies used to carry out resolve to issues involve works or not. Thank you.

  • Posted by Zong

    I am waiting for a long time to see how Western King and Asia King are fight each other. The WW II had been past by over 60 years, then the WW III will arrive soon. Let’s think about, why does US live far away from the South China Sea, but US is interested to pivot Asia? US is not humble to conduct in Asia, US just provoke and make China for angry. US must understand that China is a supper power in Asia, US should share power for China to control over Asia.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    “[US] defend Japan against Chinese aggression”

    But the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or Senkaku/Diaoyu /Tiaoyutai Islands, are not “Japan” so the U.S. recognition of Japan’s administrative control over the islands is wrong despite the (or because of) longstanding alliance with Japan

  • Posted by henry ford

    ” Since the Obama administration pivoted towards Asia, U.S.-China relations have been complicated by territorial disputes in the seas of the Asia-Pacific. China’s assertiveness” gives the impression that the US initiated and/or complicated the SCS territorial disputes. Nothing can be further from the truth: China has sneakily but lawlessly invaded this shared water for decades, starting with the 1974 invasion of Paracel islands and 8 reefs of the Spratly chain from Vietnam. It also took Mischief and recently the Scarborough Shoals from the Philippines. In fact, while there are 6 claimants for sovereignty rights of South China Sea and with a signed COC, China is the only nation that uses forces to occupy neighbor’s territories.
    So, a US approach that encourages peaceful resolution is insufficient when it does not call out the only real aggressor that threatens peace and stability for this region: China.

  • Posted by Maung Tun Aung

    JUST TELL THE TRUTH THAT THE ISLANDS BELONG TO CHINA.
    As you can see in the article “The Tiaoyu Islands (Senkaku Island) are China’s Territory”
    by Kiyoshi Inoue
    Professor of History department
    Kyoto University, Japan

    http://www.skycitygallery.com/japan/diaohist.html
    “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.

  • Posted by Maung Tun Aung

    As you can see in the article “The Tiaoyu Islands (Senkaku Island) are China’s Territory”
    by Kiyoshi Inoue
    Professor of History department
    Kyoto University, Japan

    http://www.skycitygallery.com/japan/diaohist.html
    “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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