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Chinese-Japanese Senkaku Island Dispute - Vital U.S. Strategic Interest or Not?

By John Daly | Wed, 26 September 2012 22:35 | 8

As the U.S. repositions its military forces to assume a great role in the Western Pacific, the state Department has taken a position to defend the contested Senkaku islands, which most Americans have never heard of.

In a rare display of solidarity, both Taiwan and China dispute Japan’s claim over the archipelago. At present, the dispute is apparently being handled by water cannons, with the Japan Coast Guard on 25 September spraying with water cannon 75 Taiwanese fishing boats, according to Taiwan's government-owned Central News Agency, were joined by 12 Taiwanese government patrol boats in approaching the islands’ territorial waters, After hosing from both sides, the Taiwanese boats left Japanese waters.

So, Washington is preparing to weigh in on the dispute. In testimony on 20 September, U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told members of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, “"We do acknowledge clearly that Japan retains effective administrative control" of the Senkakus and they fall "clearly under Article 5 of the (Japan-U.S.) security treaty."

Walking back this extraordinary revelation somewhat, Campbell added, “A stable and productive Japan-China relationship is also in the strategic interest of the United States and the region as a whole. We have been concerned by the rising tensions in Sino-Japanese relations over the Senkaku Islands, the violence of anti-Japanese protests in China, and the potential for miscalculation or accidents in the East China Sea that could lead to even greater tension. We have consistently urged both sides to take steps to defuse the situation and resolve their differences peacefully.”

Further complicating the diplomatic picture, the Senkakus, which China calls the “Diaoyu” islands are claimed by yet another U.S. Pacific ally, Taiwan, which refers to them as the “Tiaoyu” islets.

Campbell was only reiterating what U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta apparently told his Chinese hosts in Beijing on 18 September. According to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbum, Panetta told Chinese National Defense Minister Liang Guanglie that the security treaty obligating the United States to come to the defense of Japan would be applied to the Senkakus. Perhaps not surprisingly, according to a high-ranking U.S. government official speaking off the record, Liang expressed China's strong opposition to having the security treaty applied to the Senkakus. In fact, Panetta was only relaying the message from his 17 September meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, where he also confirmed that the U.S.-Japan security treaty would apply to the Senkakus, since they are at present under ‘effective” Japanese control.

It didn’t take the Chinese media to weigh in on the issue. On 20 September, “The People's Daily,” the paper of the Chinese Communist Party, ran an editorial stating, "The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is a by-product of the Cold War era and should not damage the interests of third parties, including China… Any nation that seeks to interfere in the Diaoyu Islands issue will experience a loss of their interests."

Lest Tokyo or Washington doubt Beijing’s intentions, the day after “The People's Daily” appeared, Japan’s Coast Guard reported that a flotilla of 17 Chinese craft are now in close proximity to the Senkaku’s waters, including four marine surveillance vessels, nine fishery monitoring craft and three patrol ships.  Just to complete the picture, a patrol vessel from Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration also arrived on the scene.

The Senkakus/Daioyus/Tiaoyus are hardly prime real estate. Consisting of of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks, the archipelago is located roughly approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of the Chinese mainland coast and 200 nautical miles southwest of the Japan’s southernmost Ryukyu island of Okinawa.

And the mileage is causing the heartburn. At issue is each country's claim to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in November 1994. UNCLOS Part V, Article 55 defined an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) for countries with maritime frontiers as extending 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline.

Quite aside from the rich fishing grounds surrounding the islands, another commodity being contested worldwide is also believed to lie beneath the waves – hydrocarbons.

Accordingly, after oil seemed to be discovered off the islands in 1968, the three nations began wrangling over title to them.

The question remains – why exactly should the U.S. take a position favoring Japan in the dispute?

Why is Washington not urging Taiwan, China and Japan to submit their claims to the International Court of Arbitration, where they are all members?

If the U.S. does not stay out of this dispute, then there is certain to be at least one aggrieved nation, and the era of U.S. diplomatic pressure and “gunboat” diplomacy belong to another era.  Those few in Washington with a historical memory might recall that in 1853 an American naval flotilla forcibly opened up Japan to western trade. Eighty-eight years later, on 7 December 1941, Washington found out the wisdom of that particular venture.

Water cannons today – tomorrow…?

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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John Daly
Company: U.S.-Central Asia Biofuels Ltd
Position: CEO

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  • M. Perry on September 27 2012 said:
    The U.S. should support Japan on the Senkaku issue because it is only part of a Chinese territorial expansion program to take control of all of the East and South China Seas, effectively controlling the sealanes which are the lifeline for many Pacific countries. Chinese PLA leaders have openly declared their intent to replace the United States as the dominant strategic power in the region. Nothing wrong with that, except that China is one party dictatorship that has a long history of bullying it's smaller neighbors, resulting in nations from the Phillipines to Vietnam turning to the U.S. to support them against the more powerful Chinese threat.
    The U.S, has historically supported the weaker and threatened, over the powerful and dominating nations.
    We have a treaty obligation to defend Japan and failng to do so, a treaty that has been in existence for 52 years, would undermine our credibility and foreign policies over the entire globe. The U.S. has already been in a strategic cold war with China since the late 1990s, and is the midst of shifting 60% of our nval forces to the Pacific. While American, as well as other, corporations benefit from the econoimic relations with China, their profits are going towards building a military large enough to confront the United States. And they have said so. That most Americans are oblivious to this fact is rather alarming.
    Japan has always had owbership and control over these islands since early 1885. They wre never taken from China or anyone by force as they were uninhabited. The US controlled them along with Okinawa until 1972.
    From 1945 to 1978 the U.S, used the Senkakus as a livefire bombing range.China never complained that we were bombing "Chinese territory". The Washington Times made public in 2010 a Chinese map from the 1960s showing these islands as being Japanese territory. There is really no question that China's claim, which did not arise until 1972 after the potential oil and gas deposits were found is a far cry from "ownership since ancient times" that China is claiming. The idea of settling the issue at the ICJ can only be instigated by the claimant; China. But China refuses to do so as it would set a precedent for countries like the Phillipines, Viertnam, Malaysia to bring a claim at the ICJ against China. Japan can not bring a claim against itself.
  • Elmo on September 27 2012 said:
    America should not step in such disputes.
    Firstly, there is hardy any hope of ending the Senkaku dispute. Its not a mere issue of labeling the islands as either countries' map or tapping the resources underlying in the area. Deep political, culture and historical reasons are making this issue muddy. The islands are just the tip of the iceberg. Years of oppression and humiliation endured by the Chinese during early part of the 20th century, warped historical education of schools on Japan coupled with an nationalistic culture of both nations, resulted in tensions in both nation. These tensions will not be resolved by an external party, especially through violence.

    Secondly, if America steps in, it might have an reciprocal effect instead. It is obvious that china is very uncomfortable with America's presence in the pacific. Imagine your rival moving next door to you with a rifle. The more America steps in, the more uneasy China feels. This resulted in an increased need for China to fight for more sea room. The island spats only started when there is an increased in American presence in the Asia-pacific. Hence, if America steps in, it will just complicate matters.

    Thirdly, when there is no clear distinction of who should the island belongs to, stepping in might not be a wise choice. (Note that the government acknowledge Japan's effective administrative control not its sovereignty over the islands.) It is simple. Currently, America has been accused to trying to undermine China's development, so as to protect its supremacy. If America steps in, it might be seem as bullying China with a better military force instead. This is especially so when neither force has show any clear sign of aggressive and usage of military. If Japan are the first to launch an assault, stepping in will definitely worsen America's international relationships and image. America's image had already been badly damaged in the middle-eastern countries.
    There is no need to be the bad cop in the story.

    Forth,it might no be beneficial to us. Wars can drag for years and costly, moreover wars between two superpowers. Case studies from many previous wars fought by the U.S shows the effectiveness and the cost involved. Iraq, Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Afghanistan... Moreover, U.S's economy is just picking up. Isn't providing jobs for its own people more important then meddling in spats over some rock in the middle of nowhere?

    Lastly, international interest is at stake, not just America's. A war between both countries is detrimental to all countries. Economies will clash. Moreover, the Russian might step in, to join the side of China. China is not the only country in the region to have island disputes with Japan. The Russian and the Koreans have their foot in the matter as well.
  • Hans Nieder on September 27 2012 said:
    Well stated, Mr Perry...
  • John WIlliams on September 27 2012 said:
    Go back to Iran, Perry. It's obvious that you are trying to split the relationship between US and China so that you can gain on the sideline. Too bad, we can see that clearly.
  • Peter on September 29 2012 said:
    Whatever treaty the US and Japan signed is a travesty! As was the formation of Israel and we all see the effects of how that has gone! It was taken by Japan by force so clearly it should have been returned to Taiwan after the end of Japan's occupation! China or even Japan is not the biggest offender in the matter, it's the USA for this despicable treaty and that Hillary Clinton has only succeeded in worsening relations between the two world superpowers, well done(!)
  • Observer on October 02 2012 said:
    Once again, KCT and KMT will join forces to fight japan-america imperialism just like how they did 80 years ago fighting the same "world-class" imperialist nations the japan and america.
    The history will happen again
    http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/opinion/as-americans-intervene-china-japan-island-dispute-seems-part-of-containment-strategy/547665
  • Arnold on October 03 2012 said:
    It is almost always difficult to reclaim a stolen property!
  • Raju Seth on October 14 2012 said:
    The book " China's Maritime Ambitions and the PLA Navy" gives a very broad view of the Chinas ambition in the Asia Pacific Region.

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