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The Monitor's View

Is Obama ready for a stare-down with China?

China's provocation of Japan over the Senkaku Islands shows a need for Obama to be ready for a crisis in Asia. He must buck up Japan and send a clear signal to Bejing.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / October 1, 2010

After nearly two years in office, President Obama remains untested as a commander in chief during a tense standoff – his own Cuban missile crisis, for instance, or Iranian hostage-taking, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or 9/11.

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But he'd best prepare for such an encounter in Asia.

Last month, China bared its fangs at America’s chief Asian ally, Japan. Beijing appeared to precipitate a crisis with its weak neighbor when the captain of a Chinese fishing boat deliberately rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands.

For more than a century, Japan has had clear legal control of those rocky, uninhabited islands near Okinawa. But that has not stopped China from recently seeking ownership of them for offshore oil or to show everyone – especially the US Navy – who’s the new boss in Asian waters.

Beijing surprisingly escalated the incident after Japan detained the captain. China retaliated by halting critical mineral exports to Japan and arrested four Japanese visiting China. Even before the incident, the Chinese Navy had been swarming near the islands.

After two weeks of hostile reactions, Japan finally capitulated Sept. 24, releasing the captain. But not before other Asian nations saw just how much of a bully China has become.

The United States praised Tokyo’s decision as a diplomatic necessity – but not before quietly stating that the defense treaty with Japan would require the US military to defend the islands if China took them by force.

The crisis still lingers. China and Japan are demanding apologies. And Tokyo is considering whether to station its regular troops near the Senkaku Islands. The incident is thus a wake-up call for Mr. Obama to prepare for China again flexing its muscles in a dangerous way.

Obama’s national security strategy, however, is to primarily focus on rebuilding the US. Indeed, in September, when China protested about a planned military exercise in the Yellow Sea with a US aircraft carrier, the US backed down rather than risk Chinese anger. And Obama didn’t do much to persuade Beijing that its ally, North Korea, was guilty of sinking a South Korean naval ship last March, killing 46 sailors.