The crux of why the Obama administration’s Asia-Pivot strategy is reckless and stupid is contained in the first question and answer of Foreign Policy’s interview with Japan’s Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera.
Foreign Policy: What kind of commitment has the United States given to you in terms of defending the Senkakus if China attacks? And what kind of commitment would you like?
Itsunori Onodera: We don’t have any assumptions that specific incidents will occur. But the area in and around the Senkakus is controlled by Japan, and the lands controlled by Japan are subject to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Article V [which states that “an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety”]. The United States and Japan have agreed in talks that the United States is obligated to fulfill Article 5 in case anything happens.
Sino-Japanese territorial disputes over a set of island chains that China calls Diaoyu and Japan calls Senkaku were long dormant. China claims the islands belonged to mainland China going back to the Qing dynasty. At the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, Japan annexed the islands. After WWII, when Japan was forced to adopt a pacifist government and the U.S. occupied several Japanese islands, the maritime territorial claims between China and Japan were not a hot issue.
About a year ago, the Japanese government bought the Senkakus from a private Japanese owner, pissing off China. And ever since, China and Japan have been engaging in brinkmanship to stake their claims on the disputed territory. It’s important to note that the islands became ever more important to each party after they were discovered to be rich in oil, gas, and mineral deposits, as well as being valuable fisheries.
According to many sources in both China and the U.S., Washington’s promise to go to war for the sake of Japan’s territorial integrity has emboldened right wing nationalists in Japan. China wields much more military and economic power than Japan, but Japan ain’t scared because America has her back.
A similar dynamic is taking place with Vietnam and the Philippines, who have comparable territorial disputes with China. As the Washington Post reported in July:
China’s most daring adversary in Southeast Asia is, by many measurements, ill-suited for a fight. The Philippines has a military budget one-fortieth the size of Beijing’s, and its navy cruises through contested waters in 1970s hand-me-downs from the South Vietnamese.
From that short-handed position, the Philippines has set off on a risky mission to do what no nation in the region has managed to do: thwart China in its drive to control the vast waters around it.
The Philippines ain’t scared, though, because the U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with them as well.
While it may be exciting hardliners in Japan and the Philippines, America’s meddling in Asian territorial disputes that have nothing to do with us isn’t perceived favorably in China. Last year, according to the New York Times, “a longtime Chinese diplomat warned…that the United States is using Japan as a strategic tool in its effort to mount a comeback in Asia, a policy that he said is serving to heighten tensions between China and Japan.”
“My biggest fear is that a small mishap is going to blow up into something much bigger,” says Elizabeth C. Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“If there is a use of force between Japan and China,” warns Sheila A. Smith, also of CFR, “this could be all-out conflict between these two Asian giants. And as a treaty ally of Japan, it will automatically involve the United States.”
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera is cocky and prepared for a military skirmish with China over these uninhabited islands, potentially pulling the U.S. into a destructive bout in Asia-Pacific.
Alternatively, we could stay the hell out of it.