In a surprisingly uncharacteristic show of diplomatic backbone last month, the Obama administration sent an unwelcome message to Beijing: America will stand with Japan against China’s unwarranted territorial claims on Okinawa’s waters. The crisis began on Sept. 7, when Japan’s coast guard arrested a Chinese fishing-boat captain who had deliberately rammed one of its vessels inside Japan’s territorial waters in the Senkaku Islands, part of the Okinawa chain.
In the weeks following that, Beijing carefully ratcheted up pressure on Tokyo. Despite the fact that the Senkakus have been Japanese for more than 130 years, Beijing demanded the captain’s release, arguing that Japan had had no right to arrest him, and an apology. With each passing day, Beijing increased the stridency of its protestations that the Senkaku Islands “have been Chinese sovereign territory since ancient times” and “China is determined to defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” China curtailed tourism to Japan and canceled official delegations. China’s Premier Wen Jiabao refused to shake hands with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.
Then China quietly halted shipments to Japan of “rare earths” (China controls 95 percent of the world’s production) - an essential ingredient in all advanced computers and other electronics manufactured in Japan. The rare-earths embargo startled global markets, and China’s government hastened to deny any embargo existed.
Japan released the Chinese fishing captain in hopes of tamping down the controversy, but Japanese companies in China suddenly find trade shipments held up by zealous Chinese customs police. China has sent its own coast-guard ships into waters near the Senkaku Islands, where they shadow Japanese maritime patrols. It is just a matter of time before Chinese pressures boil over once again.
Over the past several decades, the Senkaku Islands often have been a cause for demonstrations of Chinese nationalism. But Beijing’s new aggressiveness in those waters seems aimed at probing for weaknesses in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Can America, so beholden to China in trade and finance, actually calculate that a few uninhabited islands in the East China Sea are worth straining their relationship? Strategists in Beijing reckoned that President Obama would turn a blind eye and Tokyo would be demoralized by the lack of American concern.
But Beijing’s gambit backfired. U.S. pushback began on Sept. 20 when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. flatly warned Beijing that “there is an emerging relationship that we have to get right between the United States and China. … Frankly, I don’t know how that relationship can be made right other than going through Tokyo.” Mr. Biden, at least, understands that the U.S.-Japanese alliance is central to America’s strategic future in Asia, and his startling assertion was a reflection of Washington’s awareness that Beijing has resumed probing for weaknesses in the alliance.
Judging from the calibrated escalation of China’s heat, the controversy seemed to be a well-planned confrontation. For 40 years, China’s diplomats have been suspicious of the U.S. Japan Mutual Security Treaty, especially Article 5 - the one that declares the United States will “act to meet the common danger” in case of an “armed attack” on “territories under the administration of Japan.” And for 40 years, through a succession of frictions and confrontations in those waters, the U.S. State Department has plainly asserted that “Article 5 applies to the Senkaku Islands.”
Behind the scenes, the Obama administration at first tried to calm the Chinese, but as Beijing’s rhetoric became unappeasable, several top U.S. officials spoke out in support of Japan. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters that “obviously we’re very, very strongly in support of our ally Japan” on the Senkakus issue, with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in attendance.
Why does the United States care about the Senkaku Islands? The primary reason is that China’s territorial belligerence has reached alarming levels, not just against Japan, but in the South China Sea and along the far reaches of China’s border with India. But, unlike some of China’s other territorial frictions, the United States does not see Japan’s territorial rights to the Senkakus as “disputed.” Plain and simple, the United States considers the Senkaku Islands to be part of Japan.
So did China until 1969. Japan mapped the Senkakus in 1879 and formally enrolled them in Okinawa prefecture in 1895. In 1945, with the U.S. occupation of Okinawa after one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war, in which more than 12,000 American soldiers and Marines were killed, the Senkakus came under U.S. military administration.
During the 25 years of U.S. occupation of Okinawa, the Beijing government thought the Senkakus to be Japanese. The People’s Republic of China Provincial Map Collection of “Fujian Province, Taiwan Province” published in secret form by the Chinese National Survey Bureau in Beijing, dated 1969, identifies the islands as the “Senkaku Island Group” - using the Chinese characters for the Japanese name rather than the Chinese name. Before 1969, no Chinese government ever disputed Japan’s ownership of the islands.
However, in 1969, the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) issued a report announcing that “a high probability exists that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in the world.” All of a sudden, China decided that the Senkaku Islands had been Chinese all along.
The islands have strategic significance to Japan, not just for the putative seabed oil and gas resources but also because, under international law, the Senkakus qualify as “islands” capable of “sustaining human habitation.” This is important because under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea - to which both China and Japan are parties -an “island” brings to its owner a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and sovereign claim to the aquatic resources and seabed minerals therein. Without them, Chinese territorial waters would be about 200 miles closer to Japan than they are now. With China’s navy getting more pushy than ever before, Japan has reason to keep its maritime frontiers as far removed from its major islands as possible.
The Obama administration also sees China’s territorial appetites elsewhere as a strategic risk for the rest of Asia. This summer, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reasserted America’s demand that China’s claims against Southeast Asian neighbors on the South China Sea littoral be resolved peacefully and in an international context. Beijing’s claims to the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh - an area of India bigger than Taiwan that no Chinese ever have inhabited - raise the specter of armed clashes between the two Asian giants that also disturb Mrs. Clinton’s sleep.
America’s new firmness in support of its partners across democratic Asia will oblige China to reassess its aggressiveness. Beijing certainly will regroup to test Washington again, and soon. Let’s hope President Obama is up to the task of organizing our democratic partners in the region to balance China’s rising power.
John J. Tkacik Jr. is a retired officer in the U.S. Foreign Service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.