After his self-proclaimed victory as the new president-elect of the US, Joe Biden was congratulated by some heads of state and government. In this regard, on Wednesday (November 11), the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, telephoned Biden with the intention of congratulating him on his victory and during the conversation they discussed several matters of strategic importance for both nations.
The American Democrat has strongly stated his commitment that the US will support Japan’s claims on the disputed Senkaku Islands. Biden and Suga also agreed to coordinate joint efforts related to several global challenges, such as combating the new coronavirus pandemic and global warming, as well as other environmental issues. However, the most important point is the issue of the islands due to the delicacy of the topic, which involves an old dispute between Japanese and Chinese.
Biden touched on an extremely sensitive point in international relations when talking about the Senkaku Islands. Both Japan and China have expanded territorial claims on the Senkaku islands – named by the Chinese as Diaoyu islands – over the past few decades. Japan insists on its sovereignty over the islands, in force since 1895, while China defends Japanese maps from 1783 and 1785 that designate the islands as a Chinese territory. Japan claims that the incorporation of the islands into its territory at the end of the 19th century was carried out peacefully, as there were supposedly no traces of any occupation over the region and the annexation was carried out in accordance with the legal requirements of that time. After the Second World War, the islands remained under American control, having been returned to Japan in 1972. In the same decade, China intensified territorial claims using historical sources that point to the Chinese presence in the region during the Japanese annexation.
In 2012, Japan took a strong step towards the complete dominance over the region, when the Japanese government bought three of the five islands that make up the archipelago. Previously, these three islands – including the Uotsuri island, the largest in the region – belonged to the Japanese "Kurihara" Family and are now under total control of the Japanese state. China, as expected, strongly criticized the attitude, but there was no condemnation expressed by international society.
Japanese authorities say the Chinese interest in the region is only due to the fact that major oil reserves have been discovered in the East China Sea, making the Senkaku Islands a strategically located point for various operations. Despite its undeniable strategic interest, China has clear historical links with the region, which is part of its eastern sea space. The most correct thing would be to state that there is a convergence of economic, historical, and geo-strategic interests on the part of Beijing – evidently, the same interests are present on the Japanese side. For this reason, the dispute has been going on for decades, without any definition about who in fact should have sovereignty over the islands, and until today Japan and China have not reached a direct confrontation to decide this issue – and apparently they do not intend to do so.
It is precisely here that we can find the danger in the speech of the American president when he says that he will guarantee Japanese interests in the region. The Senkaku Islands have been under Japanese rule for a long time, despite Chinese claims. It is Tokyo that manages to assert its interests in the region, not Beijing. And to date, Chinese claims have not been violent or bellicose, despite American alarmism.
That is why Biden’s words can be interpreted as truly dangerous, as they indicate an innovation of American strategy for the East China Sea region. The president-elect’s attitude can still be understood as provocative, as his words come at a time of relative stability, with few tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which can now change at any time.
It is also important to note that China is included in the list of countries that have not yet recognized Joe Biden’s victory. The American elections are still far from an exact definition, being subject to judicial litigation due to several allegations of fraud and questions about the results. Until the new president is decided in court, China will not recognize a new American statesman, so Biden’s words sound even more offensive.
In short, Biden, without even being recognized by China, may be causing a major rise in the country’s tensions with Japan and may be creating a new course for the dispute over the dominance of the Senkaku Islands. It does not seem to be the best strategy for Japan to accept “American aid” on this issue when it has so far managed to deal with the situation alone while maintaining peace in the region, especially considering the growing critical thinking towards the US that has been emerging among the Japanese forces in recent times.
In fact, Japan and China could resolve this issue alone and peacefully.
Lucas Leiroz is a research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.