Japan fends off a bear and a dragon

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan wait in the Green Room of the White House before the start of their press conference in the East Room, April 30, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Tokyo is facing renewed tension with China and Russia over long-disputed islands.

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  • No wonder relations between China and Japan are poisoned

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  • Moscow's actions present a big strategic challenge to Tokyo

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Southeast Asian countries butted heads with China in Phnom Penh last week over the South China Sea, but a potentially more dangerous game is being played out in North Asia—at both ends of the Japanese archipelago. Tokyo is facing renewed tension with China and Russia over long-disputed islands. Diplomatic lines are hardening and all three countries are giving a far more prominent role to their militaries in attempts to intimidate the other.

Japan's dispute with China over the Senkaku islands (known to the Chinese as Diaoyutai) has dramatically heated up in recent weeks. The islands, which have been administered by Japan since 1972, straddle vast undersea natural gas and oil fields and are a key fishing ground. The catalyst for the latest tensions was provided by firebrand Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, who proposed in April to buy the Senkaku islands from their private owners.

This forced Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to follow this month with a pledge to have the national government purchase the islands, a position reiterated by Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba who told the Chinese that Tokyo was in the process of "nationalizing" them. The Chinese reaction was swift, with the Foreign Ministry stating that it would not allow Tokyo to buy Chinese territory.

Beijing also responded by sending three maritime patrol boats to the waters around the Senkakus. They were met by a Japanese coast guard vessel, repeating a scene that just ended in the South China Sea, as China and the Philippines resolved a month-long maritime standoff at the Scarborough Shoal. As in other cases, China's state-controlled media poured fuel on the fire, with the Global Times, a commercial offshoot of the People's Daily, urging Beijing to warn Tokyo that any provocation would have "serious consequences." Such heated rhetoric leaves any accident or unintended clash on the high seas difficult to contain. Late last week, Tokyo recalled its ambassador from Beijing.

No wonder relations between the two countries are poisoned, with a recent opinion poll conducted by a Japanese think tank and Chinese newspaper showing that 84% of Japanese respondents and 64.5 %of Chinese polled hold negative views of the other nation. Chinese television remains filled with documentaries and dramas about Japan's World War II atrocities, and a new iPhone app in China allows players to defend the Diaoyutai islands from Japanese forces. Despite being among each other's largest trading partners, Japan and China have not even established a basic level of trust with each other.

Meanwhile, the Kurile Islands in the north are becoming a bigger bone of contention between Russia and Japan. Occupied by Russia since 1945, the four southernmost of the islands are still claimed by Tokyo, though that didn't stop Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev from making his second trip there this month. Japanese Foreign Minister Genba stated that the visit threw "cold water" on recent high-level efforts to resolve the dispute. In response, Mr. Medvedev reasserted that the Kuriles were Russian territory and said that he was "absolutely indifferent" to Japan's complaints.

If that didn't ruffle Japanese feathers enough, General Nikolai Makarov, chief of the armed forces general staff, said that Russia would increase its military position in the region, possibly by sending Mistral-class helicopter carriers. Last year, Mr. Medvedev promised to deploy attack helicopters, air defenses and anti-ship missiles to the islands, purportedly to defend against any Japanese attempt to assert sovereignty.

Moscow's actions present a big strategic challenge to Tokyo, which only last year unveiled a new security document that shifted Japan's defense focus to its southwestern island chain, where Chinese naval and air activity have increased in recent years. Yet, much as in the 19th century, Tokyo is unable to completely pivot away from its north.

To Tokyo, this highlights the continuing importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. With no close partners in the region, Tokyo remains reliant on America as the keeper of the peace. It's now watching to see if Washington's "pivot" to Asia results in less focus on Japan's security needs.

In fact, while Washington may depend on Japan for military bases, it's wary of being drawn into Tokyo's disputes with its neighbors, particularly over the Senkakus. After a similar dispute with China in 2010, the State Department reaffirmed that the islands fall under provisions of the mutual defense treaty with Japan, but Washington made clear that it expects Tokyo and Beijing to resolve the dispute through negotiation. Washington is willing to give even less support over the Kurile issue in the north. More broadly, the Pentagon is facing drastic cuts that will make it riskier to get involved in a conflict except for the most serious of issues, like an invasion of Taiwan.

That means Japan will be on its own when it comes to playing dangerous games over these islands. Yet Japan can't simply give up its claims to either group, since that would spur all its neighbors to make demands. Tokyo will have to perform a balancing act-that too, solo-but expect it to focus more on the growing power in Asia: China.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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