The dispute has been prevalent for decades, and there are three theories to why the dispute suddenly escalated: 1) potential natural resources, 2) domestic political affairs to appease nationalism, and 3) rising military power. China is going through a political transition where the entire cabinet will be stepping down from power at the end of this year, and the new leaders must project strong leadership to its people. They wish to prevail over the humiliation of losing the islands to Japan and reassert themselves as the preeminent power in Asia. Astoundingly, China and Taiwan are in agreement over a territorial dispute which means that the conflict does indeed stem from shared identity and history. China is also concerned about the rising military power of Japan, in particularly the attempts to modify pacifist clauses within the Japanese Constitution to give them legal and security justifications to expand their armed forces. On the other hand, Japan is definitely concerned about China’s rising military capabilities and presence, especially during a period where China has experienced massive economic growth and Japan’s economy has remained more or less sluggish. The Japanese Government is also experiencing very low approval ratings, and pressure from domestic constituents will certainly force them to take a strong stance on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Both China and Japan see the potential of exploiting the islands’ natural resources as very profitable and as strategic locations for naval supremacy.
It is important to recognize the rising naval power of China and its determination to consolidate a strong sphere of influence in the South China Sea as an indicator of China’s intentions to further its one-China policy and control of natural resources in the region. It is also worth noting that the U.S. position has been generally neutral, however; through the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, the U.S. maintained administrative control over the islands from 1945 to 1972, eventually returning sovereignty to Japan. China was excluded during the negotiations and do not recognize the specific provisions regarding the status of those islands in the treaty. In accordance with the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan, past U.S. presidents have lent support to recognize the islands as part of Japan’s “residual sovereignty”, in which the islands will be defended by both Japan and the U.S. in the event of an attack or illegal occupation.
Now that the U.S. is shifting its focus towards the Asia-Pacific, this will be one of the conflicts we may have to address in the future. According to multiple media sources, “the U.S. signed an agreement with Japan in September 2012 to build a second missile defense radar installation on Japanese territory, aimed at countering North Korea, but China may view the move as a provocation” (Russia Times). The U.S. must be careful not to provoke or discomfort China and its neighbors. It would be unwise for the U.S. to further support Japan’s claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Maintaining neutrality and resolving the conflict through dialogue is the best course of action. China-U.S. relations will deteriorate if the U.S. continues to provide military support and aid to Japan.
Consequence #1 – A New Cold War
Many argue this will have a destabilizing effect on the region and fear a new Cold War involving the U.S. and China. Recent U.S. actions point toward a policy of containment to limit China’s political and economic growth in order and delay its rise as a regional superpower. However, many countries within the region have expressed a growing concern over containment. Taking sides will have a destabilizing effect on their economies. For instance, 12.1% of India’s imports come from China, its largest trading partner. Also, China is heavily investing in Australia’s mining operations, and as a result, the industry is thriving. And finally, China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, accounting for roughly 25% of Japan’s exports. Countries within the region will discourage U.S. attempts to contain China because economies are intertwined where long-term mutual cooperation is essential in continuing growth. The U.S. will experience resistance on future policies of containment. We must realize that China will eventually reach superpower status and it is within our interests to improve relations and seek a mutual understanding rather than sign new defense treaties or arms purchases that China interprets as provocation. The rise of China as a world economic superpower will limit its desire for military action. It is better to maintain and promote further dialogue between all countries in order to resolve long-standing disputes.
Consequence #2 – Military Escalation between China, Japan, and the U.S.
At this stage, military confrontation is highly unlikely, but we want to avoid any future actions that lead towards escalation. Recently, there have been a number of incidents near/on the islands involving protests and confrontations between fishing boats, Chinese warships, Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guards. These confrontations are increasing and the U.S. should exercise caution among the disputed parties. One casualty from either side will surely escalate towards military conflict. Joint military exercises involving Japan and U.S. forces aggravate China and should cease until tensions calm. The U.S. should also delay any future agreements with neighboring countries that involve missile defense or arms transfers that could be seen as provocation toward China. Although the U.S. has an obligation to defend Japan and its territories, the U.S. should not commit any military assets to the conflict.
Although the Chinese are reluctant to discuss this issue beyond bilateral talks with Japan, the U.S. should continue to carefully observe the situation and intervene diplomatically without taking sides. In the long run, the U.S. should persuade China and Japan to agree to trilateral discussions to work out an official resolution to the dispute if neither party is able to do so in the near future.
Samuel Woo is an Analyst at 361Security