By Jon Grosh
The US Senate unanimously approved a measure last week backing Japanese control of the contested Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in China), sovereignty over which is also claimed by China and Taiwan. The measure confirmed that the United States would meet any challenge to Japanese administration of the islands and thus honor the two countries’ Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. It further articulates that the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the territory, which, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, would include 200 nautical miles of economic territory surrounding the islands; it simply backs Japanese administration. In sum, the measure reaffirms US intentions to preserve the status quo and deter Chinese aggression while staying as removed as possible from attempts to finally resolve the dispute.
Stability in the Pacific is important to the United States. The US economy is heavily dependent on Pacific trade, which depends on stability in the region. What’s more, the US is treaty-bound to defend Japan in case of Chinese aggression. Yet, even as its leaders speak of a “pivot” to Asia, they stand idle as the island dispute threatens regional peace.
The US, which held the islands after WWII, granted administrative control to Japan in 1971 based on a hundred year old Japanese survey. Chinese leaders assert that the 1971 treaty is illegal, because it did not consider Chinese claims that date back to 1403. When Japan nationalized control of the islands in September, China responded with boycotts and naval maneuvers near the disputed waters. Given the rising tension, it seems clear that direct negotiations are needed to resolve the dispute. China and Japan, however, have been reluctant initiate them.
For decades China and Japan quietly ignored their opposing sovereignty claims in the interest of broader cooperation. This tacit agreement broke down in 2010 after a Chinese trawler collided with multiple Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the islands resulting in a major diplomatic crisis. Japan and China did their best to resume their cooperation after the collision, but these attempts failed. Leaders were unable to ignore the nationalist passions brewing in their countries. Each side responded by asserting their sovereignty claims still more aggressively.
The two countries have a lot to gain from cooperation. The seabed around the islands is believed by many to be rich in oil and gas, but politics have prevented either state from fully taking advantage. Successful negotiations would also restore damaged trade relations. China is Japan’s number one trading partner and Japan is China’s number two. Since the dispute heated up in 2012, China has boycotted some Japanese goods, cut off trade of important minerals, and refused to participate in a high-level economic summit in Japan.
For both sides, negotiations are risky. Neither wishes to appear weak domestically or abroad. However, the alternatives—collapsing economic relations and possible war—are even worse. While US Senate has sent a message that it won’t tolerate the use of force by China, this measure does not resolve the dispute. China and Japan continue to face the risk of accidental escalation and of a further deteriorating trade relations. These risks increase by the day. Steering this dispute away from disaster and toward peaceful, sustainable resolutions will take more than US military deterrence.