Post #17 – Obama in Japan: A Missed Opportunity for Conflict Prevention

Most impartial observers of the China-Japan imbroglio over tiny islands claimed by both in the East China Sea—known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu—believe it has reached a dangerous point.  The importance of the dispute is essentially two-fold.  First, historical memory counts heavily in China-Japan relations.  Despite their wide and deep economic ties in terms of trade, investment, and (at one time) Japanese development assistance, the dislike between peoples and governments is palpable.  The Chinese are unrelenting in demanding Japanese apologies for aggression in World War II and insisting that Japanese political leaders stop behavior (notably, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine for war dead) that suggests a lack of contrition.  The Japanese say they have apologized enough and have every right to honor those who have served the country and display patriotic symbols.

Second, energy economics is very important in the dispute.  Abundant oil and natural gas deposits apparently lie below the surface.  China and Japan are among the world’s top energy consumers.  Either a boundary agreement or an agreement to share resources must happen before extensive drilling further heightens tensions.

President Obama, about to leave Tokyo as I write, has forfeited an opportunity to influence the course of the China-Japan dispute. Before, during, and at the end of his trip, he not only reiterated the longstanding US position that “administrative rights” over the islands belong to Japan even though sovereignty remains undetermined.  He also reaffirmed the interpretation that the US-Japan Security Treaty binds the United States to help Japan protect the Senkakus along with the rest of the Ryukyu island chain. And Obama applauded the notion that Japan should play a larger security role in Asia-Pacific, saying (in a written response to a Japanese newspaper’s question) he agreed with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on the need to  “deepen the coordination between our militaries, including by reviewing existing limits on the exercise of collective self-defense,” and hoped Japan’s military would “do more within the framework of our alliance” (

Thus, the United States is hardly neutral on the matter, and therein lie serious problems for both US-China and China-Japan relations.

What Obama should have done is rein Prime Minister Abe, a nationalist leader who seems bent on making Japan into a “normal nation”–one with a stronger military less bound by constitutional restrictions.  Obama should have clarified to Tokyo that the US security umbrella over Japan does not give Abe carte blanche to “defend” the Senkakus, and that the US-Japan alliance is best served by finding a diplomatic resolution of the territorial dispute.  Although Abe has said more than once that he is open to talking with Chinese leaders about the islands, most of his signals have been in the other direction—insisting that Japanese sovereignty is incontrovertible, visiting Yasukuni, aiming at constitutional revision to legitimize having a stronger military, and increasing Japan’s defense budget.

Abe has given China’s hawks a perfect excuse not just for closing the door to negotiations with Japan and declaring an air defense zone over the island area, but also for framing the issue as part of the US “pivot” to Asia and containment of China.  Unless Washington can restrain Abe, the situation will escalate, raising the prospect of the United States having to become militarily involved in Japan’s defense.  Even short of that, China-US relations will take a severe hit if Sino-Japanese tensions increase.

These circumstances underscore just how strongly Cold War alignments and strategic thinking continue to exert significant influence over international relationships in East Asia.  And that is bad news for peace and stability in the region.  All parties need to take a step back and dampen the hostile rhetoric.  One Japanese analyst, Kazuhiko Togo, has suggested (in Asian Perspective, vol. 38, No. 2 (2014), forthcoming, that China agree not to enter the waters around the islands, that Japan agree not to build or otherwise occupy the islands, and that the two governments work on confidence-building measures to create trust.  Such a package makes eminently good sense, since it would shelve the sovereignty issue and make the use of force much less likely than is now the case.

Chinese leaders should recognize how much their country’s economic future is linked with Japan’s, and Japanese leaders should remind themselves of the central importance for the region of positive China-US relations.  Together, they should develop a new code of conduct to govern maritime affairs and the handling of disputed territory.  A major part of that reevaluation for Beijing and Tokyo must include putting aside the dispute over the historical record of the islands and the unfortunate history of China-Japan relations in general.  The United States is party to the dispute, and should not let the alliance with Japan stand in the way of China-Japan dialogue.




  1. Both of the principal nations involved here have exceedingly long memories, as Mel notes. A couple-three other states are also players with long memories. The memory issues include now only WW-II, but many years of Japanese aggression extending a decade or more before the ‘hot’ war began. No nation in that region has a clean slate, but IMO Japan should not be complaining quite as much as they appear to be. General MacArthur led (forced) Japan into civilized behavior with the Western world, but did little to belay the strong anti-Japanese sentiments in the rest of the Westerns Pacific Rim. Only days a ago, an elderly Korean friend demonstrated some ‘enforced’ Japanese influence in a Korean-English dictionary. The Asian memory is long and “Forgive, but do not forget,” however it translates into a dozen languages, is not often heard in nations over run by Japan before and during WW-II. The West adores their economic progress, most of the Western edge of the Pacific Rim has a very long memory.
    In any disputes about territory or authority, Japan is fortunate to even have a seat at the table.
    IMO, those memories will remain, perhaps forever.
    A wonderful post Mel and thank you. If my take is is wrong, I’ll expect a stout correction. -C

  2. The extent to which memories are long in Korea was demonstrated to me in a poli sci class I audited at a local university last fall. A 20-something student of Korean heritage expressed rage at one point during the class over the Japanese occupation of Korea before and during WW II. Turned out that her grandfather was a victim of abusive treatment by the Japanese military back then. Seventy plus years have gone by and this young person still hates the Japanese. THAT is a very long memory indeed!

    1. I spent 1968 in S. Korea, and talked with a lot of young Korean soldiers. There was near universal contempt of Japan, and the oral history of severe abuse was deeply held. Most of these people are still alive, and I doubt that most of them have healed anywhere as much as is needed.
      The splitting of the Koreas was also so deeply felt that I could not imagine that it will stand for many decades longer. So much yearning is a powerful driver.

  3. Yes, the Chinese and Koreans share a deep animosity. The Chinese continue (as recently as 2 days ago) to write about Japanese Unit 731 and biological experimentation on Chinese in the 1930s. And the Koreans recently rejected a Japanese offer of assistance following the ferry boat capsizing. Historical grievances count a great deal in that part of the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s