The uninhabited islets in the East China Sea at the center of a bitter dispute between China and Japan are “clearly” covered by a 1960 security treaty obliging the US to come to Japan’s aid if attacked, a top US diplomat said on Thursday.
“We do not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of these islands,” US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told a US Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
Japan has controlled the rocky islets since 1895 — except during the 1945 to 1972 US post-World War II occupation of Okinawa — and calls them the Senkakus. China and Taiwan maintain they have an older claim and call them the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
“We do acknowledge clearly ... that Japan maintains effective administrative control ... and, as such, this falls clearly under Article 5 of the Security Treaty,” Campbell said.
He told the subcommittee that recent violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and other actions that stoked tensions were a growing worry to the US. The long-standing territorial dispute bubbled over again last week when the Japanese government decided to nationalize three of the islands, buying them from a private Japanese owner.
“We are concerned ... by recent demonstrations, and, frankly, the potential for the partnership between Japan and China to fray substantially in this environment,” Campbell said.
“That is not in our strategic interest and clearly would undermine the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific [region] as a whole,” he added.
The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan was signed in 1960 as a successor to a 1951 bilateral security treaty and underpins what is seen as the most important of five US treaty alliances in Asia.
Article 5 says “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
The article also commits the allies to report “any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof” to the UN Security Council and to halt those actions once the Security Council takes steps to restore peace and security.
He said this stance on the islets is the same that has been articulated by US officials since 1997.
“The world cannot afford a crisis in Asia that would have untold consequences for our economies, and the economies of Asia, Europe and the rest of the world,” Campell told the subcommittee.
The territorial spat flared up again yesterday as a protest ship from Taiwan briefly joined around a dozen state-owned Chinese vessels in waters near the Diaoyutais, Japanese officials said.
The Taiwanese-flagged ship was spotted yesterday morning 44km off Diaoyu Island (釣魚島), or Uotsurijima, the largest island in the chain, the Japanese coast guard said.
It was the first time since early July that a protest ship from Taiwan had been seen near the islands.
In Taipei, Taiwan’s coast guard said in a statement that the vessel, the fishing boat Ta Han 711, left Keelung port late on Thursday for the islands and headed back to Taiwan before noon.
The boat, escorted by a Taiwanese coast guard vessel during the whole trip, was spotted by three Japanese boats although there was no confrontation between the two sides, the statement said.