By Rustin Gates, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Rustin Gates is visiting assistant professor in the History Department of the University of Iowa. The views expressed are his own.
The United States appears to have finally taken sides in the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. The recent announcement that the U.S. and Japan will jointly review their defense-cooperation guidelines in the coming months reveals a thinly veiled secret: Washington has Tokyo’s back in the East China Sea.
According to Japanese Vice Defense Minister Akihisa Nagashima, who was recently in Washington for talks with the Obama administration, Japan and the U.S. will revise the guidelines with the intent of adapting them to fit the current geopolitical climate in East Asia, including “the fallout” from “China’s spectacular rise”. Back in Tokyo, Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto emphasized that revisions were necessary given “China’s maritime advancement” – a sure reference to China’s increasingly assertive claim to the islands.
Beijing and Tokyo have long been arguing over the islands, with each claiming sovereignty and dispatching maritime patrols to the area. Taiwan also claims the islands, but because of the generally positive relations between Taipei and Tokyo, and their important positions within the American bilateral alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region, tensions remain low compared with those emanating from the Sino-Japanese dispute.
The dispute took an interesting turn in September when the Japanese government purchased the islands from the Japanese family who had owned the islands since the seventies. In response, angry Chinese took to the streets in widespread protests that led to the egging of the Japanese embassy, the destruction of Japanese cars, and the ransacking of Japanese businesses.
Throughout all of this, Washington has attempted to remain on the sidelines by calling on both parties to exercise restraint and utilize diplomacy but, when pressed, U.S. officials have quietly suggested American support for Japan should the situation turn violent. The recent American decision to hold talks on the security guidelines, however, is a loud and clear expression of Washington’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty – by which the U.S. has pledged to aid in the defense of Japan – and sends an unmistakable message to China that it would back Japan’s claim to the islands. While this is perhaps not a surprise given the close security relationship between the U.S. and Japan since the end of the Pacific War, this public siding with Japan could mean that Washington is now inextricably involved in a territorial dispute in which it has historically wanted no part.
Japan formally annexed the islands in early 1895 during its victorious war against China in 1894-95. During the American occupation of Japan following World War II, the United States assumed control of the islands, which Washington maintained until the Nixon administration agreed to return them to the Japanese in 1972. In Oval Office discussions during the run-up to reversion, it became clear that the U.S. government hoped to avoid becoming embroiled in a burgeoning East Asian dispute over the islands involving two American allies, Japan and Taiwan, and one potential new friend, China.
After learning of the American plan to return the Senkakus to Japan, Taiwan pressed its claim and asked the U.S. to retain possession of the islands. The State Department’s position, however, was to return the islands along with Okinawa to the Japanese, but it also stated that “the U.S. passes no judgment as to conflicting claims,” believing that these “should be settled directly by the parties concerned.” The implicit pro-Japan bias in this approach did not please Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, who advocated for a more neutral position. Kissinger had become fed up with Japan’s reluctance to contribute more to its own security and its failure to implement textile export quotas for the United States market.
Nonetheless, contravening Kissinger’s preference and the request from Taipei, Nixon continued with the plan to return the islands to Japan because the deal had “gone too far,” with too many commitments already made. And so, the U.S. attempted to formally remain out of the dispute by declaring that the status of the islands was undecided and by urging the Japanese government to confer with Taiwan before officially agreeing to take back the islands. The American hope, however, that its allies would resolve this dispute on their own was dashed a month later when they received word from a Taiwanese official stating that “the Japanese so far have refused to talk in any meaningful way on the subject.”
Soon after the U.S. and Japan signed the island reversion agreement in 1971, China, which was emerging from international isolation and would soon take over Taiwan’s seat at the United Nations, issued its own claim of sovereignty over the islands. China loudly denounced Japanese assertions of island ownership during one of its first U.N. appearances (the Law of the Sea Conference, 1972). The issue threatened to derail Sino-Japanese talks on the resumption of diplomatic ties later in the year, but in the end, Tokyo and Beijing’s eagerness for formal relations prevailed. When the Japanese and Chinese normalized relations in September 1972, the islands question was shelved for the future.
That future is now. While tensions have flared over the n the last two decades, China has enjoyed spectacular growth and is now the world’s second largest economy with a robust U.S. trade relationship. China is now projecting its new power outward by asserting past territorial claims.
China’s rise, however, does not change the fact that Japan continues to be a stalwart American ally in the Asia-Pacific based on the enduring relevance of the US-Japan security pact. For America, the territorial integrity of an important ally is now being challenged by an equally important trading partner. This Sino-Japanese stand-off thus represents a wall that prevents the U.S. from kicking the islands question any further.
This wall has now forced the U.S to take sides. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the parties concerned because it eliminates the uncertainty that confronts policymakers in Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington. The decision by the U.S. and Japan to revise the security guidelines in response to China’s growing international assertiveness could prove to have a calming effect on tension in the region. This newly exhibited American resolve should make China think twice before directly challenging Japan’s hold on the islands. Similarly, the commitment shown by Washington to Tokyo’s position should put to rest Japanese worries of Chinese encroachment but also its fears of Japanese right-wingers provoking a crisis to draw out an American response.
As with the post-Cold War era, the U.S. again has the opportunity to be a stabilizing agent in the region by avoiding obfuscation and pursuing clear and consistent policies. There has already been indication that Washington realizes this. The recent decision concerning the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines is a further step in the right direction.