Where Does U.S. Stand on Sino-Japanese Dispute?

Posted on September 12, 2012


Japan’s announcement that it has purchased the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands has predictably created a firestorm in China. On Saturday, even before Tokyo had announced that a deal had been reached, Beijing was already hintingthat the dispute over the islands could impair bilateral economic relations.  Furthermore, after Japan formally announced the nationalization of the islands, China dispatched two civilian patrol ships- reportedly the Haijian 46 and Haijian 49 vessels from the China Marine Surveillance– to “safeguard”Beijing’s sovereignty over the islands. Japan’s Coast Guard responded by deploying its own vessels to the Islands, according to Japanese news outlets.

All of this, while dangerous, is to be expected. What’s more peculiar is the United States’ role in these unfolding events.

From the beginning, it has been clear that Japan has sought to use its alliance with Washington to advance its claims to the islets. Indeed, it hardly seems coincidental that Japanese officials initially began leaking word of the imminent deal while Hillary Clinton was visiting China last week. Additionally, as Chinese media outlets have been so fond of noting, Tokyo’s ratcheting up of tension coincides with a joint U.S.-Japanese military drill.

Washington’s position on the matter has only further muddied the waters. As tensions between Japan and China have increased in recent months, the U.S has insisted that, while it doesn’t take sides on territorial disputes, the U.S.-Japanese defense treaty- which commits Washington to protecting Tokyo’s territorial integrity- covers the Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands. Thus, the U.S. has embraced the same kind of purposeful ambiguity that has characterized its policy towards Taiwan for over three decades.

As the situation has grown even more heated over the past week or so, the U.S. has further divested itself from it. During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit last weekend, Secretary Clinton and the U.S. delegation seemed to touch on every issue besides the Sino-Japanese dispute. The bulk of Secretary Clinton’s comments and energies during APEC were, appropriately enough, devoted to economic issues, particularly promoting stronger economic ties with Russia.

But even though Clinton met with Japanese Prime Minister Noda during APEC, U.S. officials billed this meeting beforehand as intended to address Tokyo’s lingering dispute with South Korea. Little was said about it afterward. Even after Japan announced the deal on Monday, the U.S. merely reiterated its desire to see Japan and China work together to solve the issue through dialogue, unconcerned at the impracticality of this occurring in the near-term.

The ambiguity of the United States’ stance on the dispute makes it difficult to discern what role it is actually playing. Indeed, Washington’s actions over the past week give rise to two widely diverging interpretations. The first, which is the one China will undoubtedly perceive, is that the U.S. is acting as a silent partner in Japan’s misadventures, privately endorsing them while not taking a position one way or the other in public.

On the other hand, the fact that Washington has failed to adopt a coherent position on the issue suggests that Japan may have blindsided the U.S. with the deal, and the Obama administration is still scrambling to come up with a response.

Neither bodes particularly well for the United States. In the case of the former, the U.S. is helping to destabilize the region as China’s state-media has long accused it of trying to do. In the latter case, America’s strongest regional ally is entrapping Washington in its own specific disputes with China, and the U.S. is failing to do anything about it. Given the number of U.S. allies in the region, falling victim to the “tail wags the dog” syndrome could prove extremely costly for the United States over the long-term.

Zachary Keck 

Japan-China Territorial Dispute Threatening Economic Relations; U.S. Also Feeling the Heat

“Uncertainty” about Obama administration policies has been blamed for staunching business investment and growth in the U.S.

Uncertainty about passage of a doubling (from 5% to 10%) of the national VAT–the biggest legislative initiative of the Noda government, achieved last month after a year of debate–probably had little effect on business decision-making and growth in Japan.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda wait for a translation during a toast at the National Geographic Museum April 30, 2012 in Washington, DC. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda attended a diner in honor or the Prime Minister’s first official visit to Washington AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI

Going forward, what seems likely to have a much more chilling effect–both psychological and practical–in Japan’s economy and politics is uncertainty about the escalating dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu by the Chinese).  Japan’s decision to “nationalize” the islands through a state purchase from the private Japanese owner now appears irrevocable.  China is leaving no doubt that the cost of this move to Japan will be far greater than just the purchase price.

As shown in the East Asian crisis scenarios sketched in an important new book, The China Choice–Why America Should Share Power by Australian National University professor of strategic studies, Hugh White, sovereign disputes like Senkaku/Diaoyu, can easily, if not inevitably, escalate toward armed conflict.  In such conflicts, both sides are compelled by the fear of appearing weak or irresolute to not only match, but to raise, the level of pressure or threat against the other in recurring rounds of provocation and response, and to never back down.  These situations also carry huge risk for “allies” (read here, the U.S. as an ally of Japan) whose commitment to back one side–up to and including being drawn into the conflict–cannot be compromised for fear of showing that the alliance is ineffectual and meaningless.

That the U.S. has already been drawn into the Japan-China dispute was plainly seen last week in Beijing with China abruptly canceling the scheduled  meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and China’s soon-to-be new supreme leader, current Vice President Xi Jinping.  From Beijing’s perspective, the U.S. continues to be part of problem, rather than part of the solution (or amelioration) to the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute.  In a dynamic well described in Professor White’s book, we can expect to see China keeping heavy pressure on the U.S., pressure that can only sharpen America’s dilemma in having to choose between Beijing and Tokyo.

The iciness and ill-feeling were as thick as Russian tundra as the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputants sat around a table at the APEC Summit in Vladivostok over the weekend.   The summit provided opportunities for many participants to stage cordial bilateral delegation “photo ops” where leaders of both sides promised to increase cooperation and trade.  There was no such meeting between Japan and China.  Japan was rebuffed in trying to arrange a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

In the end, yesterday, September 9, at the conference end–apparently to avoid the appearance of a complete diplomatic rupture and crisis between the countries–what was arranged was a 15 minute Noda and Hu “unofficial” meeting while standing on the conference floor. Hu took the opportunity to bluntly warn Japan not to “make a wrong decision” on Senkaku/Diaoyu, stating that the action would be illegitimate, unlawful, and null and void.

Chinese national media today headlined Hu’s warning to Noda.  (Strangely, there has been no comparable coverage in Japan.)  Now added are not-so-subtle threats that, if Japan goes ahead, the move will not be passively countenanced by China.  China is saying that Japan will be severely and permanently damaging relations, with inevitable and serious consequences in economic and commercial as well as political relations.  In other words, major retaliation.  What the retaliation will be, how severe and how permanent, which Japanese interests will be affected (Japan’s auto makers will also certainly be a target), are now  question.

So we are back to uncertainty casting a pall over business investment and growth in Japan, uncertainty made more ominous by the fact that there is no apparent end or solution to its cause.


Posted in: Economy, Politics