Will a contested island chain drag the U.S., Japan, and China into war?
Fresh tensions have surfaced between the world’s foremost economic superpowers, as the Chinese government strongly opposed recent comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the contested Senkaku islands.
Known in Chinese as the Diaoyu, both Japan and China lay claim to the tiny, barren, yet geographically strategic chain of rocks– along with the potential oil and natural gas deposits that may lie beneath them. Clear territorial rights to the islands have been somewhat difficult to prove, given an extremely rocky history of territorial conquest between the East Asian neighbors. The U.S. has historically supported Japan’s claims, however, and Clinton’s recent statements not only reaffirmed this stance, but went one step further.
“We oppose any unilateral action that would seek to undermine Japanese administration,” said Clinton, implicitly warning that Chinese military action would be responded to in kind if the United States’ close ally was threatened. She did call on both Beijing and Tokyo “to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreement through peaceful means.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded to Clinton’s comments Sunday, saying that “the comments by the U.S. side are ignorant of facts and indiscriminate of rights and wrongs.”
From China’s perspective, the U.S. played a leading role in arbitrarily assigning the uninhabited islands to Japan in the chaotic territorial redistribution following World War II, despite prior Chinese claims. “We urge the U.S. side to adopt a responsible attitude in regard to the issue of the Diaoyu Islands,” Mr. Qin added. China, which has a long historical memory extending throughout thousands of years of continuous national unity, has not forgiven Japan for atrocities committed during World War II, including the infamous Nanking massacre.
Nationalistic sentiments have flared on both sides of the East China Sea since September, when the Japanese government purchased the three islands from their private owners, the Kurihara family of Saitama Prefecture. The move was actually intended to preempt the islands’ purchase by the fiercely right-wing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who has a history of provoking China. Nonetheless, the official purchase upset officials in Beijing, and led to a heavy backlash from Chinese consumers, who attacked Japanese storefronts throughout China and boycotted Japanese goods. The incident set back Japan’s already fragile economic recovery, since China is Japan’s largest trading partner for both imports and exports.
Japan’s new Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida promised that the incoming administration would take a pragmatic approach to the issue. While the relatively small island nation has no intention of conceding sovereign claims over the territory, “we intend to respond calmly so as not to provoke China,” Kishida said. The new government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, plans to pursue a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interest to China,” Kishida added.
Despite such rhetoric, the conservative Abe administration has pledged to introduce a more assertive foreign policy after decades of complete dependence on U.S. military support. Within weeks of winning a landslide victory on December 16, Tokyo revealed a plan to increase military spending for the first time in the new millennium.
Japan scrambled eight F-15 fighters in response to a small Chinese surveillance plane spotted over the islands on December 13, indicating a willingness to employ force if necessary. The developments have caused growing concerns in Washington, which has enough political and economic frictions with the rapidly militarizing China to keep diplomats busy, without a Japanese territorial dispute pulling in U.S. forces.
Prior to Mr. Kishida’s recent visit to Washington on Friday, the U.S. sent a delegation of three senior officials to Tokyo in an attempt to encourage a peaceful and pragmatic resolution to the issue.
On Thursday, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state in charge of East Asia, called for “cooler heads to prevail.” Let’s hope that they do.