Japan is engaged in three territorial disputes over small islands; one a quarrel that could involve the US in armed conflict, another that angers US leaders and a third that is calm.
In the first, which is over islands the Japanese call Senkaku, the Chinese Diaoyu (釣魚) and the Taiwanese Diaoyutai (釣魚台), armed patrol ships have been sailing close to one another and firing water cannons at each other in the East China Sea. It is an accident or miscalculation waiting to happen.
At the same time, a war of words erupted at the UN General Assembly last week as the Japanese reiterated their legal and historical claim to the islands, while the Chinese repeatedly accused the Japanese of “stealing” their ancient territory.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met separately with the Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers in New York in an attempt, apparently unsuccessful, to get both sides to back off. The Chinese have several times cautioned the US not to meddle in this quarrel.
A US State Department spokesman told the press after Clinton’s meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) that she urged “Japan and China [to] engage in dialogue to calm the waters, that we believe that Japan and China have the resources, have the restraint, have the ability to work on this directly and take tensions down.”
After her meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, the secretary’s spokesman said she had urged Japan to “move carefully, deliberately and effectively in its bilateral diplomacy with China.”
The danger is that both the Chinese and Japanese have taken rigid public positions with heated rhetoric. For either to retreat would cause a loss of “face” and unpredictable political consequences. This comes when China is about to undergo a change of leadership and Japan’s parliamentary government may call an election before long.
The danger for the US lies in a mutual security treaty with Tokyo that might require an armed intervention on the side of Japan. The US has taken no position on the territorial claim, but has declared that the security treaty applies to the Senkakus, as they are under Japanese rule.
The uninhabited islands are within striking distance of the US air base at Kadena on Okinawa. A spokesman for the Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii declined to say whether F-15 or F-22 squadrons there had been alerted, it being customary not to comment on operational matters. However, prudent commanders undoubtedly have their eyes peeled.
In the second dispute, over rocks in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea, another war of heated rhetoric erupted at the UN last week.
A US official, asked which side was more at fault, spat out a reply: “We’re ticked off at both of them.”
In this case, Clinton called Gemba and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan together. Her spokesman said later she had urged them “to calm the waters [and] maintain cool heads.”
Other officials have said both should attend to more serious threats, such as that from North Korea.
“We have no intention of playing a mediating role” on the territorial claims in this dispute, the spokesman added.
The US has a security treaty with each side, but both have been told quietly that the US would not feel obligated to back either one if an armed conflict breaks out between them.
In contrast to the bitterness between China and Japan and South Korea and Japan, the issue of four islands north of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, lies quiet. Russia, then the Soviet Union, captured them at the end of World War II, but Japan still claims them. The US openly supports the Japanese claim.
There may have even been some movement toward resolving the dispute. At the meeting of APEC members in Vladivostok last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to visit Moscow at an unnamed date.
Putin, who wants to see Russia have more influence in Asia, told a press conference with Noda: “We are interested in developing relations with Japan and we want to conclude all the problems that we inherited from the past. We spoke about what we can do in the nearest future.”
Compared with what the Japanese have been hearing from the Chinese and Koreans, that must have sounded like a Tchaikovsky symphony.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.