No war drums yet in the Pacific

Reuters

A video grab shows a Japanese coast guard vessel (top) warning a ship carrying Chinese activists not to approach the uninhabited East China Sea islets known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyutai in China, in East China Sea October 27, 2006 in this handout image released by Japan Coast Guard. A Japanese coast guard vessel has attempted to stop a boat carrying a group of ethnic Chinese activists from nearing the Japanese-held islands also claimed by China and Taiwan, officials said.

Article Highlights

  • The Senkakus tiff isn’t brain surgery, but neither is it Sunday tea with Auntie. It’s old fashioned elbow throwing.

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  • Neither Japan nor China is going to war over the Senkakus.

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  • The simple fact is that Tokyo is not going to surrender any control over the Senkakus, and Peking knows this.

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  • The United States certainly can’t solve island disputes simply by reiterating support for one country over another.

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Despite the unceasing calls for my sage advice regarding the drumbeats of war between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands, I have refrained from weighing in. This undoubtedly regrettable vacuum has been filled, however, by dozens of Asia-watchers, running the gamut from those calling for sterner measures, to those dismissing it all (in the infamous words of General Taylor in Good Morning, Vietnam) as “a tempest in a teacup, much ado about nothing; for crying out loud, man, this isn’t brain surgery.”

"They are strategically significant as part of a chain of control for sealing off the East China Sea from the western Pacific Ocean, which Peking fears would keep it blocked from the global commons; they also sit on top of enormous undersea oil and gas deposits, which both Japan and China are actively trying to explore and develop." -Michael AuslinIndeed, the Senkakus tiff isn’t brain surgery, but neither is it Sunday tea with Auntie. It’s old fashioned elbow-throwing on the basketball court. It’s a bit of pushing and shoving to see if your man gives some room, or backs down. The islands, located just off the northeastern tip of Taiwan, are claimed by Tokyo, Peking, and Taipei. They have been administered, however, by Japan since 1972, as part of the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control by the U.S. They are strategically significant as part of a chain of control for sealing off the East China Sea from the western Pacific Ocean, which Peking fears would keep it blocked from the global commons; they also sit on top of enormous undersea oil and gas deposits, which both Japan and China are actively trying to explore and develop.

The latest contretemps has followed older scripts: A group of Hong Kong, Chinese, and Macau activists sailed to the islands to mark the Japanese surrender in World War II, and were arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard (a fine force, by the way) on August 15. Peking demanded their release, and after a few days, Tokyo expelled them all. This was then followed by a group of Japanese activists who briefly landed there before themselves being kicked off by Japanese authorities. Protests broke out in both countries, demanding that their respective governments assert control over the tiny territory.

This latest test of wills is nothing new. Japan and China nearly severed diplomatic relations in 2010 over the Japanese arrest of a Chinese fishing crew who rammed a Coast Guard ship after being ordered out of the waters around the Senkakus. Japanese parliamentarians have done helicopter flyovers of the islands to protest China’s building of an oil exploration platform in the contested area.

Neither Japan nor China is going to war over the Senkakus. Nor will either government let their activists or publics get out of hand. The simple fact is that Tokyo is not going to surrender any control over the Senkakus, and Peking knows this. But the islands, lying so far from Japan’s home territory and so close to Chinese waters, are an irresistible target for Peking continuously to probe Japan’s strength and will. PLA Navy ships, have been much more active in the area in recent years, and Japanese officials complain that China has violated agreements on joint exploration of gas resources in the massive Chunxiao gas field (which may have over 1.5 trillion cubic feet of reserves).

For Japan, however, the Senkakus are just one island dispute with its neighbors among many. It still rejects Moscow’s control of the Kurile Islands off Japan’s northern home island of Honshu, and has an equally emotional and tense dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima (Dokdo) Islands in the Sea of Japan, which has flared up in recent weeks, as well.

Among the commentators, I think Donald Kirk, writing in the Korea Times, has pegged the issue: Between Japan and its neighbors, “the bitterness is a permanent condition.” Bitterness over World War II, bitterness over older historical claims, and bitterness (in the China–Japan case) over rival designs for leadership and influence in East Asia. All the respective capitals understand this, and Washington should, as well. Asia’s island disputes are a long-term management problem, like living with a debilitating disease. The United States certainly can’t solve it simply by reiterating support for one country over another. Rhetoric is important to send signals, but it is just part of a cacophony of voices in Asia.

That doesn’t mean surrendering our interests, however, or those of our partners. Right now, the Senkakus are administered by an ally, and we need to maintain that status quo. The best way to do so is by a quiet maintenance of our air and naval presence in Northeast Asia. With both U.S. and Japanese defense budgets declining, Peking is watching carefully to see if our actions fail to keep pace with our words. A waiting contest is fine by Chinese lights. In this case, then, Teddy Roosevelt had it right, and in Asia, actions are what count. A steady watchfulness to defuse anger should be our policy guide in this case.

P.S. My use of “Peking” rather than “Beijing” isn’t a typo or an anachronism. I’m not sure why we long ago acceded to Beijing’s — sorry, Peking’s — adoption of the quasi-nationalist Pinyin system over the venerable Wade-Giles transliteration. Plus, if it’s good enough for Peking University (China’s Harvard), then it’s good enough for me.

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