Will the US intervene militarily in the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, dispute?
As the dispute between China and Japan approached a new critical point last month, then-US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton held a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The Chinese side interpreted this as Washington taking Japan’s side, but all Clinton said after the meeting was that the US “urges all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means.”
Japan has focused its Asian strategy on the Diaoyutais since the beginning of this century, because having rights over the islands is critical to the expansion of its territorial waters.
To strengthen its position in the confrontation with China, Japan has hoped for US military intervention. Its Asian strategy is based on the US-Japan Security Treaty, which makes Tokyo dependent on Washington. As for the US, the treaty functions as a strategic deterrent for China, but is merely a link in the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy. There are clear asymmetries in the US and Japanese strategic deployments.
The US is focusing its deterrent on China, but also sees Japan as a potential threat. China might one day cease to be the US’ main target and be replaced by Japan. As such, the US would prefer that the dispute between China and Japan over the status of the Diaoyutais continue.
Although the US hopes that China and Japan will start talking, it also believes the depth of the dispute could lead to a stalemate, which would benefit the US in maintaining its strategic leadership in the East China Sea.
China’s rise is making Japan insecure and Japan is more dependent on the US-Japan Security Treaty to alleviate such concerns. Almost every new Japanese prime minister wants the US to restate its commitment to this treaty.
However, there is a gap between Japan’s expectations and the US’ commitment. First, the US is unlikely to place all its eggs in one basket in its strategic deployment in the Asian-Pacific region. Second, the Diaoyutais rank far below the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and the South China Sea in strategic importance. Third, there are other important strategic points in the area such as Okinawa and Guam. Fourth, the US needs to cooperate strategically with China on economic, regional and global security issues. Fifth, a US military intervention in the Diaoyutais dispute will hurt regional stability and complicate the issue.
The US intervening militarily in the dispute would only help Japan realize its national or Asian strategic interests, but could harm the US by increasing tensions with Beijing.
Memories of the Japanese invasion during World War II make it hard for Tokyo to form strategic alliances with most East Asian countries against China. This will force Japan to rely even more on the US, highlighting the asymmetry of US-Japanese relations.
As the saying goes, “whoever started the trouble should end it.”
To avoid any incidents over the Diaoyutais issue, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would do better to try to build up a crisis management mechanism with Beijing to facilitate communication rather than sending a special envoy to meet Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平). By doing so, he would be able prevent the crisis from growing further due to misjudgments or even turning into a war.