US must clearly back Japan in islands dispute with China (+ video)
America rightly wants good relations with Japan and China. But sometimes one has to take sides, and the islands dispute between these two Asian powers is such a time. The US must avoid ambiguity and side more publicly with its democratic ally, Japan, and against bullying by China.
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This is a particular risk when trying to conduct a delicate balancing act between two parties to a dispute. A classic example in recent times was the US ambassador’s puzzlingly nuanced conversation with Saddam Hussein in 1990 that the dictator probably interpreted as a “green light” to invade Kuwait.Skip to next paragraph
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US officials have properly reaffirmed that the Senkakus fall under its security treaty with Japan. But there is more involved than a mere contractual obligation.
One hopes to hear American officials make at least passing references to Japan as a country that exemplifies ideals that America values, such as consensual government, rule of law, freedom of expression and thought, fair trade, and protection of property rights.
The US alone cannot solve the Senkakus problem. Japan needs to talk to China, and vice versa – even if there is nothing yet to agree on. At the same time, Japan should establish a modest, but adequate military presence in its southern islands (the Nansei Shoto) to be closer to the disputed area.
This is not risk-free, but Japan’s almost nonexistent official presence is itself destabilizing and too easily regarded as a lack of interest or willingness to defend its territorial interests – as the British learned in 1982, when Argentina attacked the weakly defended Falkland Islands.
Japan should also improve its Self Defense Force’s capabilities for joint operations between the services – and with US forces. The Japanese government needs to speak up publicly and frequently on behalf of the US military alliance.
And Japan must demonstrate its commitment by spending more on defense. It allocates less than 1 percent of GDP to defense, or about the same as Nepal percentage-wise. An additional $5 billion to $10 billion would go a long way, and Japan has the money – which is approximately the same amount as a couple of unnecessary public works projects.
Of course, Japan must be careful about its actions and its official statements – to exercise restraint and bite its tongue when necessary. Periodic tit-for-tat behavior by certain prominent Japanese politicians that apparently seek to goad China is irresponsible. Japan must not give other countries grounds for claiming today’s Japan resembles 1930s Japan – no matter how unfounded the charge.
The Senkakus dispute may take decades or even longer to resolve. But America must express patience and firmness – even if there is an economic cost. It must stand for principles such as rule of law, individual freedoms, and consensual government rather than opting for short-term expediency in hopes of pleasing everyone. That will be the safest approach over the long term.
Reward bad behavior, and one invariably gets more of it. Concede on the Senkakus – or better said, concede on the principles at stake in the Senkakus – and the same problem will surface elsewhere in Asia before long.
Grant Newsham is a former US Foreign Service officer and is a long-time resident of Japan.