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