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” (http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001227627).
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, www.asianperspective.org) 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.