Foreign academics urge US action on isles dispute

By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter, in Washington

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 - Page 1

As tensions increase between Japan and China over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), a group of foreign policy academics is urging US President Barack Obama to become more deeply involved in the issue.

“You have the opportunity to mitigate the danger of future physical clashes by mounting a concerted diplomatic effort,” they said in a memo to the White House.

They urged the US president to “encourage the countries concerned jointly to adopt conflict-avoidance mechanisms.”

Signed by former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush, senior fellow in foreign policy Bruce Jones and acting director of the John L. Thornton China Center Jonathan Pollack, the memo was released on Thursday by the Brookings Institution as part of a volume of policy recommendations for Obama’s second term.

Also on Thursday, the US Department of State released the transcript of a short press conference conducted by US Assistant Secretary for East Asia Kurt Campbell, who was completing a two-day visit to Tokyo.

“We’ve had a chance to talk about maritime security issues, and we’ve made very clear our desire to see cooler heads prevail and the maintenance of peace and stability overall,” Campbell said.

He said that he had also discussed “opportunities for increasing defense cooperation between our two sides.”

“We have conveyed privately our desire for quiet diplomacy and effective diplomacy to take place between all of the parties involved,” he said.

“We’ve articulated strongly our principles with respect to freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes and the need for close consultations among the affected parties. We do have private conversations with Chinese friends and we are in close consultation — witness this trip — with Japan,” he said.

In their memo to Obama, the academics said that maritime East Asia was becoming increasingly dangerous and that it threatened to “spiral out of control.” They said the US risked becoming entangled in conflicts among countries “that are its friends and partners.”

They asked Obama to promote more institutionalized measures to reduce risks in the medium term.

“This will both serve US interests in avoiding unnecessary entrapment and foster an environment conducive to cooperative exploitation of resources,” they said.

An intensifying contest for hydrocarbon, mineral and fishery resources “among regional actors,” was destabilizing the maritime domain, they said.

For resource reasons, China, Taiwan and Japan each claim the islands — known as the Senkakus in Japan — which lie northeast of Taiwan, while China, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian nations claim various other land masses in the South China Sea, they said.

“Trying to mediate the underlying territorial disputes would be a fool’s errand, and your administration should not try. Nor should you try to facilitate resource-sharing agreements among the claimant countries as long as the current fevered environment continues,” they said.

“The US has absolutely no interest in going to war to protect the honor of friends and allies over small rocks and islands. Should it become necessary to contend with China to protect US interests in East Asia and to buoy the confidence of American friends, it should be over a more consequential issue,” the memo concluded.