Senkaku Islands Dispute Pushes Japan and China Closer to War, and America May Get Sucked In


Recently, Japan has alienated  China by making a bid to buy what it calls the Senkaku Islands. China calls this disputed territory the  Diaoyu Islands (as seen in the picture below). Japan has undertaken a host of provocative actions – including allowing Japanese politicians and citizens to land on the islands and holding a fishing contest near the islands – in order to legitimize their claim over these islands. 

However, this course of action constitutes an unnecessary risk for Japan, the region, and the U.S.  – given the mutual security pact between Japan and the U.S. This dispute offers no significant benefit for any of these countries. 

During a press conference this week, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told the press that “[t]here is no question that the Senkakus are an integral part of our country's territory … From the viewpoint of how to maintain and manage the Senkakus in a calm and stable manner, we are making comprehensive studies on the matter by keeping in touch with the [Japanese] owner.”  Noda also stated that the best way to resolve the dispute is for the Japanese government to purchase and nationalize the  islands.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded, shortly thereafter, saying, “The Chinese government will continue to take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the sovereign rights of the Diaoyu Islands and adjacent islets.”

The islands in question constitute an archipelago that contain five uninhabited islands and three small rocks, which may have nearly 100 billion barrels of oil and 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas valued at approximately $6 trillion, according to a geological survey conducted by the U.S. in 1969. These islands has been a source of strong tensions since 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat attempted to fish in the vicinity of the islands and was forced to turn back after having its captain detained by the Japanese Coast Guard – which provoked a heated exchange of words between China and Japan that subsided without hostilities until recently.

The recent flareup is due to what China calls "Japan's aggression on territorial disputes," after several members of Japan's nationalist Saenuri Party landed on the islands. Japanese nationalists then followed this up by hosting a "fishing contest"in the vacinity. Tensions finally came to a head when Tokyo's governor Shintaro Ishihara announced his desire to use privately raised money to make the islands part of Tokyo. This act forced Noda to act by making the move to nationalize the islands.

For its part, China has constantly affirmed its sovereignty over the islands and declared that they will take any and all means to protect their right to the islands, which, by implication, includes military action.

In the region, many countries dispute Japan's claim. Taiwan has protested Japan's position.A Taiwanese citizen by the name of Huang Xilin and three of his colleagues from the World Chinese Alliance in Defense of the Diaoyu Islands tried to counter Japan’s provocative actions by trying to land on the islands to plant the flag of the People’s Republic of China, but the Japanese Coast Guard forced them to turn back.

The U.S. may also get caught up in this spat, as an unidentified U.S. State Department official, according to Japan's Kyodo news agency, "confirmed the islands between Okinawa and Taiwan in the East China Sea 'fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security'."

At present, Japan claims to be administering the islands, because the U.S. ceded the diputed islands to Japan after it formally ended its occupation of Japan in 1969. However the Potsdam Declaration does not include the dispute islands as part of the territory over which Japan has sovereignty. 

The real question, for the involved parties, including the U.S., should be: Is the risk of military action over the disputed islands worth it?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that no one really benefits in the long run and therefore this risk is not worth it for anyone. All three states have deep economic ties with one another and possess strong militaries that could wreak havoc on regional security and undermine the economic recovery of the global economy should they clash. China has also threatened to boycott Japan to put economic pressure on its government to deter its claim. The U.S. is not prepared for any extensive military action as it is still preparing for its Asian Pivot through talks with regional allies, while China's navy is becoming stronger through its modernization program. Together, the prospect of armed conflict is unwise and unncessary as a step back.

Peace can be obtained through moderation by China and Japan, and through their mutual willingness to recognize the grave risk involved in courting military conflict. The U.S. needs to advocate a peaceful resolution that returns the situation to the status quo before the recent flareup. In doing theses things, the three parties can preserve the peace in the region.