According to a Chinese article widely circulated on the Internet, the Obama-Xi summit meeting last weekend has made Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan jealous. Published in People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the article crows that President Xi Jinping got a two-day informal meeting with President Obama, while Abe’s visit to Washington in February resulted in only a “lunch reception.”
The People’s Daily is not the only Chinese media outlet to play up the angle of Japan losing ground after the summit. Du Ping, a prominent Chinese commentator, told Phoenix TV of Hong Kong that the meeting in California made Japan worried that Obama and Xi “would reach a secret” agreement on the fate of the disputed islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers but Beijing claims as Chinese territory. An article on the Chinese news Web site The Observer was even blunter: “Japan worries the United States will betray it,” and change its stance on the islands, which China calls the Diaoyu and Japan calls the Senkaku.
Of course, Chinese media commentary needs to be taken with a big dose of skepticism. Nevertheless, behind the speculation about Tokyo’s miffed feelings over American-Chinese relations lie the realities of diplomatic horse-trading and the evolving demands of realpolitik. Japan has reason to be concerned that the Obama-Xi summit weakened the U.S. commitment to defending Japan, especially over the tiny islets.
In recent years, China has become increasingly aggressive in the waters to its south and east, areas that are outside of what has traditionally been its territory. Beijing has claimed ownership over a wide area of the South China Sea, including maritime and island territories claimed by five Southeast Asian nations and Taiwan. Chinese military ships have come dangerously close to firing on a Japanese naval vessel in waters near the Senkaku. The U.S. pivot to Asia, announced in late 2011, reassured many of China’s neighbors of America’s dedication to the region, yet China seems unwilling to back down on its territorial claims.
The summit meeting raised many questions about whether Washington’s support for Japan trumps other regional interests. Will the United States continue to support Japan in its battle over a small group of islands in the East China Sea?
After the summit, the outgoing U.S. national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, told reporters that Obama pushed Xi to de-escalate tensions in the East China Sea, stating that “the parties should seek to have conversations about this through diplomatic channels and not through actions.” That’s far less encouraging than reiterating that the islands fall under the U.S.-Japan security treaty obligations, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did in April. (Hagel also repeated that the United States “does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands.”)
Perhaps more importantly, would the United States trade its unfettered support of Japan for support from China on dealing with North Korea? The idea is not as outlandish as it may sound. Obama appeared to further convince Xi on the need to reign in Pyongyang. Is protecting a group of small islands in the East China Sea more important than preventing North Korea from being able to shoot missiles at the United States?
The Chinese media, like the American press, used this summit as a chance to reminisce on the short list of past breakthrough meetings between the two countries — Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, for example, and Deng Xiaoping’s goodwill visit to the United States in 1979. The People’s Daily article, however, focused on how these summits lessened American support for Japan.
Such “alliance predicaments,” as the article calls them, are not limited to Japan. Nixon’s rapprochement with China, for example, set off an intense and eventually unsuccessful call for Washington to stand by its Cold War ally Taiwan instead of recognizing China.
If China does seize the Diaoyu islands, it wouldn’t be the first time in recent history that it seized the territory of a U.S. ally. China already de facto administers the Scarborough Shoal, roughly 200 miles from Manila, which until 2012 belonged to the Philippines. After a two-month standoff, Washington brokered a deal for both sides to withdraw — but the Chinese didn’t honor it.
In a German Marshall Fund conference last weekend in Tokyo attended by high-ranking current and former Japan government officials, the consensus was that America would not go to war with China over the Philippines. And according to a January Congressional Research Service report, the United States is obligated to defend the Senkaku islands because they are administered by Japan. At the conference Satoshi Morimoto, Japan’s defense minister from July to December 2012, told me that he fears Chinese sailors will land on the island and plant a Chinese flag, staking claim to the territory.
In an interview last year, I asked a former high-ranking administration official if the United States would defend Taiwan in the face of a Chinese attack. “That’s what it’s useful for them to believe,” he told me, adding that it was “profoundly important” that the United States manage the relationship to not allow it to reach that point. His answer holds true for the Senkaku as well.
If China does seize the islands and puts them under de facto Chinese control, would the United States risk a war to take them back?
Isaac Stone Fish is an associate editor at Foreign Policy Magazine.