The mounting tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over the small chain of islands in the East China Sea called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China have profound implications for United States interests and the future of Asia.
Both Tokyo and Washington can do more to reduce tensions, but the fundamental problem is China’s pattern of coercion against neighbors along its maritime borders. Any American plan to ease the strain between Japan and China should convince Beijing that coercion will no longer work — but that dialogue and confidence building measures might.
The competing Japanese and Chinese claims to the islands, which are under Japanese control, are rooted in obscure historical documents and verbal understandings. Japan argues that China’s historical claims to the islands are revisionist, noting that Chinese officials never asserted sovereignty over the islands before 1971. Chinese officials say that by purchasing several of the islands in 2012 from private Japanese landowners, the Japanese government broke a tacit bilateral agreement dating from the 1970s to set the dispute aside.
Yet while each side says the other broke the status quo, China has been pressing its claim by increasing maritime patrols in the waters around the islands, embargoing strategic metal exports to Japan (in violation of international agreements), and expanding military operations around — and even through — the Japanese archipelago.
Maritime states from India to the Philippines are watching the friction between China and Japan with great concern. Beijing has used similar pressure tactics in disputes with those countries since the Central Military Commission approved a “Near Sea Doctrine” five years ago with the aim of asserting greater control over the waters of the East and South China Seas. The doctrine includes not only the sea, but also the air, as Beijing demonstrated last November when it announced an Air Defense Identification Zone over a range of small islands and waters in the East China Sea administered by Japan and South Korea.
Thus the issue at stake is not just the conflict between Japan and China over islets, but the more fundamental question of whether China will use its growing economic and military power to assert its interests without respect to international norms — or to American power.
The Obama administration has reiterated that the 1960 U.S.-Japan security treaty covers islands, like the ones in the East China Sea, even though Washington has not taken a position on the underlying sovereignty question.
All of the parties have an interest in avoiding an accidental conflict in the East China Sea. But the worst thing Washington could do is push Tokyo to compromise with Beijing in the face of Chinese pressure.
The Obama administration did just that with Manila two years ago, and the results were a setback for Washington.
At that time, China was also using expanded maritime patrols and mercantile embargoes to compel Manila to compromise in a dispute over the Scarborough Shoal in the Philippine Sea. As the possibility of a clash mounted because Manila insisted on protecting its traditional control of the suddenly contested waters, the Obama administration got nervous and brokered a deal in which both sides would pull back their ships.
After a brief withdrawal, China’s maritime forces rushed back in to take control, blocking not only the Philippines’ small navy, but also local fishermen whose families have made their livings around the shoals for generations. Manila has taken the issue to the International Court of Justice and Mr. Obama will announce a new security cooperation and access agreement when he visits the Philippines next week, but China has no intention of accepting the court’s arbitration, and Beijing considers the episode a victory.
The United States must not make the same mistake of being overly even-handed in the East China Sea dispute, where the stakes are higher. The best way to avoid an accidental military confrontation would be for China to accept Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s offer for open dialogue with President Xi Jinping, and the Japanese government’s proposal for military-to-military confidence-building talks, improved communications channels for ships and planes, and activation of a hotline.
China has refused all of these overtures. Instead, Beijing has engaged in a propaganda campaign designed to demonize the Japanese prime minister as a militarist — he increased Japan’s defense spending 0.8 percent — and has argued that Mr. Abe must fundamentally change his attitude before there can be a summit meeting between the two leaders.
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army has resisted Japanese confidence-building proposals, viewing military tensions and uncertainty as means to force compromise on underlying disputes.
Mr. Obama should make Chinese acceptance of these proposals the centerpiece of his public and private discussions about the island standoff when he is in Asia this week and next.
At their talks in Tokyo, Mr. Obama and Mr. Abe should also reiterate their intention to finalize new guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation by the end of the year, which would send a strong signal to potential adversaries that the United States and Japan will be ready to stand side-by-side in any regional crisis and that any efforts to isolate Japan from the United States will fail.
At the same time, Mr. Obama and Mr. Abe need to talk about measures that will reassure China and offer potential off-ramps to the crisis.
One would be to push for resumption of earlier discussions between China and Japan on joint development of resources in the East China Sea. Another would be for Mr. Abe to take advantage of a slight decrease in Chinese operations around the islands this year to see if Beijing might agree to longer-term arrangements accompanied by more open communication and transparency. Any small opening is worth exploring.
The bottom line is that the United States is not going to resolve the underlying dispute over the islands, which is about the future structure of power and order in the Western Pacific and not just fish, gas or nationalism. Though nowhere near as brazen as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in the Ukraine, China is testing the durability of the American-backed status quo and United States alliances in Asia. This line of thinking in Beijing about the region will not disappear overnight, but if the United States is credibly engaged with allies and partners to dissuade any use of coercion, there will be room for confidence-building measures that reduce tensions and buy time for later diplomatic resolutions. Japan has useful proposals on the table, and deserves international support.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University. He is a contributor to Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations.