The Yomiuri ShimbunIt has been one year since the Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese owner last September. The following article looks back mainly at the U.S. diplomatic response to the tense situation after the islands’ nationalization.
U.S. and Chinese leaders exchanged sharp words at their June summit meeting in California, a meeting that was being watched by the world.
The two discussed the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, among other agenda items, and U.S. President Barack Obama warned Chinese President Xi Jinping that China should avoid taking aggressive actions over the Senkakus, which Obama said the United States considers to be covered by its “commitment” to defend Japan based on the alliance between the two countries.
By using the word “commitment,” Obama meant that the United States will meet its commitment to defend Japan based on Article V of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty if Tokyo and Beijing clash over the Senkaku Islands.
Referring to the United States and Japan, Article V says, “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.”
Though the treaty does not oblige Japan to defend the United States, Article VI of the treaty says “the United States of America is granted the use by its land, air and naval forces of facilities and areas in Japan.”
The United States has explained its position on the Senkakus in the following way:
—The Senkaku Islands are under the administration of the Japanese government.
—Article V of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is applied to territories under the administration of Japan.
—Therefore, Article V of the treaty applies to the Senkakus.
This U.S. stance on the Senkakus was stated at a press conference by a deputy spokesman of the U.S. State Department in 2004, when relations between Tokyo and Beijing became tense after Japan arrested several Chinese nationals who landed on the Senkakus illegally.
Obama’s comments at the recent U.S.-China summit meeting reflect a stricter U.S. position on the issue than that indicated in the 2004 statement.
During Japan-U.S. foreign ministerial talks held in Washington on Jan. 18 this year, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in reference to the Senkaku problem, “We oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration [of the Senkaku Islands].”
Clinton also said Japan’s control of the group of islets could never be shaken even if China continued to send government vessels into the area, indicating the United States would mobilize its military forces based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty if China attempted to seize the Senkakus by force.
Clinton’s candid remarks surprised even her Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida.
Her comments came at a time when the United States had become alarmed over the threat of an armed conflict between Japan and China in the vicinity of the Senkakus.
Especially worrisome for Washington is the possibility that fighters from Japan and China would engage each other in the airspace over the Senkaku Islands, eventually leading to a larger clash.
On Dec. 13 last year, a plane belonging to China’s State Oceanic Administration violated Japan’s airspace near the Senkakus. Furthermore, on Jan. 10 this year, a Chinese J-10 fighter jet entered Japan’s “air-defense identification zone,” a region that extends 12 nautical miles beyond the the nation’s territorial boundary, within which Japan considers it necessary to locate, identify and control aircraft that may intrude.
In both incidents, Air Self-Defense Force F-15 fighters were scrambled to warn the intruders.
As if attempting to inflame tension between the two countries, the Jan. 14 edition of China Military Online, an organ of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, quoted its General Staff Department as issuing instructions, saying, “Never fail to prepare to wage war and beef up our war-fighting capabilities.”
Although the United States publicly declared its support for Japan over the Senkaku Islands, a more accurate description of the U.S. diplomatic mind-set might be, “We don’t want to get involved in a dispute over uninhabited rocky islands.”
Washington repeatedly urged Tokyo not to provoke China unnecessarily. But the Japanese government bought three of the Senkaku Islands for ¥2.05 billion from a man living in Saitama Prefecture in September 2012, several months after then Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced Tokyo would buy the islands. The islands’ nationalization apparently irritated the United States.
When he visited Japan six days after the nationalization, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta posed a barrage of questions to senior Defense Ministry officials at a welcome luncheon, such as why the owner suddenly decided to sell the islands and why the Tokyo governor was involved in the deal to buy the islands from the owner.
In talks with then Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto held prior to the luncheon, Panetta said the United States was concerned that China’s provocative actions might escalate into a major incident. Then he made a point of asking Japan to take a “constructive approach” to the Senkaku issue.
As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged, the U.S. relationship with China, which has become even more powerful economically and militarily, is a complicated but “healthy mix of competition and cooperation.”
It is possible, therefore, that the U.S. stance over the Senkaku issue will be influenced in a major way by its diplomatic policies toward China. It is uncertain whether the U.S. stance on the islands will remain unshaken.
For this reason, the Japanese government plans to increase the nation’s deterrent capabilities, while taking coordinated steps with the United States.
“I want you to establish the capability to defend the Senkakus on our own,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quoted as telling senior Defense Ministry officials earlier this year. “That will strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and serve as a check against China.”
Chinese ship’s collision turning point in U.S. stance
Launched in January 2009, the Obama administration was initially vague about its position on the Senkaku Islands issue, as it was trying to work out a “G-2” relationship with China to tackle such thorny global problems as environmental and financial issues.
The Japanese government asked whether the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty covered the Senkakus, but the U.S. State Department did not give a clear answer. It said only that the United States would adhere to the international agreements it had made.
The tide turned in September 2010, after a Chinese fishing boat operating illegally in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus struck two Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels. China protested strongly when the Japanese government arrested the captain of the boat. In retaliation, China restricted exports of rare earths to Japan and detained employees of the Fujita Corp. construction company.
China was also involved in disputes with Southeast Asian nations over islands in the South China Sea. A high-ranking official of the U.S. State Department said there were fears at the time that U.S. influence in Asia would decline if the United States kept taking a hesitant approach to the Senkaku issue.