US must clearly back Japan in islands dispute with China

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.

Kyodo/distributed by Reuters/file
An aerial photo shows a Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 66 (front) cruising next to a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship near islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, on Sept. 24. Op-ed contributor Grant Newsham writes: The islands dispute 'has the potential to escalate into a tempest that threatens the region – and in turn, America’s security.'

The United States might prefer that the territorial dispute between China and Japan over uninhabited islands simply go away. America, after all, has enough of its own problems to fix. And it’s loathe to meddle in a fight between two of its most important trading partners – countries still grappling with their war-time history.

While the recent flare-ups over their rival claims to islands in the East China Sea may temporarily die down, the underlying causes will not be resolved anytime soon. The dispute also has the potential to escalate into a tempest that threatens the region – and in turn, America’s security.

America rightly wants good relations with both Japan and China. However, sometimes one has to take sides. Intentional ambiguity can be useful in foreign affairs, but not here.

The US, then, should take this moment to ensure its position avoids any ambiguity toward the islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. It should stand far more publicly with its democratic ally, Japan, and against the bullying tactics being applied by China. Asian countries are closely watching.

True, Japan has ongoing territorial disputes with South Korea and Russia. But Japan has not used or threatened force, or applied economic pressure to retrieve what it considers Japanese territory.

Chinese behavior in the last two years starkly differs. Chinese patrol boats continue a cat-and-mouse game of harassment near the Senkakus. Beijing has encouraged and apparently fomented rioting against Japanese interests in China. And it has threatened and carried out economic retaliation against Japan. Chinese officials and media have made crudely aggressive and derogatory statements toward Japan and Japanese people.

China’s trotting out of Japanese behavior from nearly eight decades ago to inflame the public is cynical demagoguery. Demonization, as a government policy, is often a diversionary tactic to cover weaknesses within a regime. The world has seen too much of this in the last 20 years, and in simple terms, this is not how civilized nations behave.

One is hard pressed to find a more responsible country than Japan over the last 60 years. It has apologized repeatedly, even if perhaps imperfectly, for its behavior in the 1930s and 1940s, and provided billions of dollars in regional aid – not to mention massive commercial investments in Asia that spurred regional economic growth. Today’s Japan is not the Japan of the 1930s, as much as China would have its people believe. Moreover, Tokyo has been a reliable – if sometimes prickly – American ally.

The US policy to recognize Japanese administrative control of the Senkaku islands but take no formal position on ultimate sovereignty is sensible. That still obligates the US (under the US-Japan Security Treaty) to come to Japan’s defense if the islands are attacked, without entangling Washington in the twists and turns of the islands’ history.

However, when stating its position and its support of Japan, the US government should avoid drifting into overly nuanced language that potentially results in nobody understanding what its exact position is.

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.

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.

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