How Long Can the U.S. Exploit the Senkakus?
The United States does not acknowledge Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the Senkakus. If this fact is allowed to seep into the consciousness of journos, pundits, and newly minted Asia experts, perhaps a lot of stuff that has happened, is happening, and will happen in the East China Sea will appear somewhat more explicable. But I’m not optimistic. I was rather dismayed to learn that An Important Journalistic Figure subscribes to the myth that Japan’s claims to Senkaku sovereignty are incontestable, and PRC shenanigans around the islands are simply another indication of unprovoked Chinese aggression and cupidity. Regrettably, this misunderstanding shows signs of getting baked into PRC coverage, and will serve as the departure point for years of China-bashing by a legion of journalistic, analytic, and political hacks.
The truth is, as they say, out there, and as usual it’s much more interesting than the myth. Point of departure should be the magisterial essay at Asia-Pacific Journal, “The Origins of the Senkaku/Daioyu Dispute between China,Taiwan, and Japan,” by Yabuki Susume with an introduction by Mark Selden.
Long story short, the Nixon administration withheld an affirmation of Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus when the whole Ryukyu shebang was transferred from U.S. to Japanese administration with the reversion treaty of 1972. Nixon and Kissinger were doing a favor to Taiwan, which had to cope with the political fallout from U.S. normalization of relations with the PRC and looked for help from the United States in avoiding another piece of humiliation by losing the islands to Japan. It should be noted that the islands are clearly in Taiwan’s bailiwick, as a cursory look at a map reveals. Sorry Japan, the Senkakus are comfortably on the Asian continental shelf, a mere 170 kilometers from Taipei, and on the wrong side of the Ryukyu Trench from the Ryukyu Kingdom i.e. Okinawa and the other islands Japan seized, together with the Senkakus when it was the region’s preeminent imperial bully.
Japan’s legal claim to the Senkakus rests on the rather contestable assertion that the islands were “vacant territory” and Japan could just take ‘em.
Those who suspect or ignore academic journals with an allegedly lefty bent can turn to the Congressional Research Service’s September 2012 “Senkaku (Diaoyu/Dioayutai) Islands Dispute: U.S. Treaty Obligations,” by Mark Manyin, for confirmation of the U.S. decision to withhold recognition of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus. In the section “U.S. Position on Competing Claims,” Manyin covers Susume’s points on the return of the islands to Japanese administration but without confirmation of sovereignty, and quotes the relevant legal opinion:
In his letter of October 20, 1971, Acting Assistant Legal Adviser Robert Starr stated: The Governments of the Republic of China and Japan are in disagreement as to sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. You should know as well that the People’s Republic of China has also claimed sovereignty over the islands. The United States believes that a return of administrative rights over those islands to Japan, from which the rights were received, can in no way prejudice any underlying claims. The United States cannot add to the legal rights Japan possessed before it transferred administration of the islands to us, nor can the United States, by giving back what it received, diminish the rights of other claimants. The United States has made no claim to the Senkaku Islands and considers that any conflicting claims to the islands are a matter for resolution by the parties concerned.
Successive U.S. administrations have restated this position of neutrality regarding the claims, particularly during periods when tensions over the islands have flared, as in 1996, 2010, and 2012.
Japan has done its level best to ignore this state of affairs with, I might add, a certain amount of help from the journalistic community. But understanding this backgrounds is important to an understanding of recent tensions in the US-Japan-China triangle. On August 17, 2010, in a news item little noted, apparently, except by me, Japan Times reported:
The Obama administration has decided not to state explicitly that the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japan’s control but claimed by China, are subject to the Japan-US security treaty, in a shift from the position of George W Bush, sources said Monday. The administration of Barack Obama has already notified Japan of the change in policy, but Tokyo may have to take counter-measures in light of China’s increasing activities in the East China Sea, according to the sources.
Although the defense treaty apparently doesn’t require this kind of public affirmation (it covers areas under the administration of Japan, not just sovereign territory), apparently the Obama administration’s backpedaling was taken in Tokyo as a worrisome sign that it might be giving aid and comfort to the PRC. As to the “counter measures,” I believe that they involved the deliberate provocation of detaining the hapless Captain Zhan and his fishing boat off the Senkakus a few weeks later, declaring the intention of trying him in Japanese courts, and achieving a crisis in Japan-China relations (rare earths!) in which Hillary Clinton, perhaps by pre-arrangement, plunked the U.S. firmly on Japan’s side—and issued the explicit statement covering the Senkakus under the treaty. But let’s set that aside for another discussion.
In 2012, the Japanese government, rather ignobly stampeded by Shintaro Ishihara’s threat that his Tokyo Governate would acquire some of the Senkakus from their private Japanese owner, nationalized three of the eight islands by purchase. Now, looking at the background, was this act of outrance directed at the People’s Republic of China…or the United States, whose position is that the fate of the islands should be negotiated?
I suspect one big reason that the PRC insistently yanks Japan’s chain on the Senkaku matter is because it’s a point of friction in US-Japan relations, and serves to remind the United States of its “honest broker” responsibilities in East Asia. And the United States, in order to show it’s not entirely in the China-containment bag, makes conciliatory noises about the Senkakus to Beijing. It appears that the United States is unwilling to let the Senkaku matter rest, and put pressure on Japan last week to acknowledge that issues existed in order to smooth the way for Japan-PRC rapprochement. At a recent meeting in Beijing, the PRC and Japan grunted out this formulation:
The two sides have acknowledged that different positions exist between them regarding the tensions which have emerged in recent years over the Diaoyu Islands and some waters in the East China Sea, and agreed to prevent the situation from aggravating through dialogue and consultation and establish crisis management mechanisms to avoid contingencies.
Per the New York Times China Diplomatic Correspondent Jane Perlez, the United States promptly spun this as “agreeing to disagree” i.e. a welcome admission that differences existed. Judging by an article in the National Review, Japan let it be known through its channels equally promptly that the “different positions” referred to “tensions” over the islands, not the sovereignty of the islands themselves. So “agree to disagree” about nada. Basically, a face-saving exercise enabling resumed diplomatic contacts between Japan and China.
And, of course, no mention of the U.S. non-position on Senkaku sovereignty. One can assume the backstory is that the United States finds its geopolitical plate unpleasantly heaped with ordure in the Middle East and Ukraine, is unwilling to add to its problems by continuing to mix things up with China in the East and South China Seas for the time being and, furthermore, doesn’t want to see the PRC turn its back on the West in order to make sticky, slobbering authoritarian love with its fellow pariah, Russia, in Central Asia.
Time, therefore, for a charm offensive and a call for comity, perhaps seasoned with the quiet threat that, once again, the PRC’s banks might otherwise find themselves as risk of getting embroiled in the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions jihad against Russia (a ploy that has been trotted out over North Korea and Russia and is feared and resented by the PRC). And that, I think, illustrates the reason why the U.S. allows this bizarre state of affairs over Senkaku sovereignty to persist. It gives the United States leverage in East Asia against the PRC and, perhaps more importantly, against its rather headstrong ally in Japan.
In terms of underreported stories, the Abe administration’s arms-length relationship with the Obama administration is also a worthy contender. Strategically and emotionally, Abe is more at home with the Dick Cheney/neo-con group in the United States. Abe was an enthusiastic participant in Cheney’s envisioned China containment “Asia Security Democratic Diamond” (US, Australia, India, and Japan) during his first term and, when he and his representatives come to the United States, it’s conservative outfits like the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute that do the hosting and arranging.
Abe wants to ally with the US government, and he determinedly cultivates the United States. At the same time, he wants to exploit the support of the U.S. government to increase Japan’s diplomatic and economic clout in East Asia, in part by encouraging polarization between the PRC and its smaller democratic neighbors. The United States has gone along, because it sees itself and the pivot profiting from a dynamic that focuses on U.S. military power more than Chinese economic muscle. But in an era of heightened confrontation with China and shoulder-to-shoulder rhetoric, the U.S. does not have a huge number of tools with which it can pressure Japan. Any doubters might look at the rather fraught progress of the TPP trade pact negotiations between Tokyo and Washington.
But America does have the Senkakus. In particular, I believe it can deploy the threat that it will openly repudiate Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the islands, and call for negotiations between the PRC and Japan. And disputing sovereignty over the worthless rocks would also involve some slicing and dicing of the Exclusive Economic Zone and the reputedly worthwhile energy resources beneath the disputed waters.
I believe the U.S. would be rather loath to surrender that leverage. So it’s not particularly interested in seeing the Senkaku issue go away. My personal opinion is that the Senkakus are, for the United States, a wasting asset. If the anti-mainland DPP, which continually plays footsie with Japanese ultranationalists thanks to the colonial heritage (little known fact: ex-president and independence stalwart Lee Tenghui’s brother is enshrined at Yasukuni), wins the presidency in the upcoming elections on Taiwan, one rumored piece of policy involves ceding Taiwan’s claims to the Senkakus to Japan.
If that happens, much of the U.S. moral and diplomatic standing on negotiation of the Senkaku sovereignty issue would be swept away. So, I think, for the Senkakus, the message to the U.S. is “make hay while the sun shines.” This productive and useful conflict might not be around forever.