Senkaku Islands Dispute: Before a War With China and Japan Sparks, US Must Decide Where it Stands


The dispute over the Senkaku Islands has come to a head between China and Japan, after last Friday, when the Japanese Government announced that it would buy these contested islands for a sum of ¥2.05 billion yen (which amounts to approximately $26 million). 

The Chinese government and public have reacted (as seen in the video below) with fury and strong protest over this action, as they see the disputed islands – which they call the Diaoyu Islands – as Chinese territory.

The U.S. needs to consider its official position and policy in regards to this dispute and ask the question: does our position on the Senkaku Islands dispute make good geopolitical sense when it comes to furthering our national interests and ensuring the regional security of Asia? 

Though the U.S. has not been directly involved in this increasingly tense territorial problem – given America’s position that it will not take sides in this dispute – it still faces a pressing need to reflect upon the consistency and strategic implications of where it stands in this tense problem.

As of now, the U.S. appears to have taken a passive-aggressive stance as America officially takes no sides with either party in this dispute, but it has stated that in case of military conflict between the parties, the U.S. would intervene on behalf of Japan under Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the Japan and the United States. Article 5 states specifically::

“Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

The State Department has affirmed America's commitment to Article 5, during a recent press briefing (as seen in the video below, starting at the 12:10 mark), on September 11, and its passive-aggressive stance in this dispute. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland noted that even though the U.S. takes no position or sides in the dispute, the U.S. would intervene if a military conflict erupts between Japan and China.

The problem – as pointed out by the Chinese reporter in the video – is that the U.S. position is somewhat contradictory, as America appears to desire the status of a neutral party, but is also a supporter of Japan. One might say that the U.S. is trying to hedge its position by trying to avoid conflict with China and avoid appearing to throw Japan under the bus by not backing its ally. By hedging, the U.S. has taken a passive-aggressive stance by positing neutrality in all cases of non-violent situations, but remaining firmly in support of Japan in case of military conflict.

To be sure, the U.S. has a role to play, as it was responsible for the start of this dispute – by giving administrative control of the Senkaku Islands to Japan during the Nixon administration – and its “pivot toward Asia” dictates a more involved U.S. in Asian affairs like the Senkaku Islands dispute – which includes the preservation of regional security and reestablishing relations with Asian allies and partners as part of a broader effort to assert U.S. influence. The U.S. national interests in Asia – in a nutshell – is to seek a equilibrium within the region through the use of an approach consistent with balance of power playbook to uphold U.S. interests in managing its relations with its allies – like Japan – and managing its more tense relations with a rising China.

In taking the position of a neutral, but ready guardian of its allies and regional security, the U.S. has effectively issued a declaratory statement on its desire to implement a policy of deterrence against China At this time, the U.S. must play a careful game of balancing its interests in the region and using restraint in its advice and approach in managing the Senkaku Islands dispute. China is not ready for a direct confrontation with the U.S., but the U.S. cannot afford to engage in a confrontation with China, even if such an action was for defending an ally. Therefore, the U.S. must convince the two parties to return to the status quo, where neither China nor Japan claimed sovereignty over the islands as the risk of military conflict are high and the consequence highly undesirable.

When considering the U.S. policy on the Senkaku Islands, U.S. policymakers – like Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – need to keep in mind that while it’s in America’s interest to support Japan in this matter, it is equally important to call for restraint. The importance of balancing U.S. interests and limiting conflicts to non-violent actions is paramount. It is clear – based on a recent hearing, at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on China’s assertive actions in its territorial disputes, including the South China Sea dispute and Senakaku Islands dispute – that the U.S. response to these political problems will set the tone for the success of America’s “pivot towards Asia” in terms how disputes are resolved in US-China relations and in Asia on the whole.

The basic idea underlining the U.S. policy for the Senkaku Islands is sound in terms of seeking to harmonize U.S. interests and the need to preserve regional security. The only shortfall is how the U.S. might convince both parties to back down and return to the status quo – where neither party made any outright claim to the islands. The key is to focus on striking a balance.