Where Does U.S. Stand on Sino-Japanese Dispute?
Image Credit: State Department

Where Does U.S. Stand on Sino-Japanese Dispute?


Japan’s announcement that it has purchased the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands has predictably created a firestorm in China. On Saturday, even before Tokyo had announced that a deal had been reached, Beijing was already hinting that the dispute over the islands could impair bilateral economic relations.  Furthermore, after Japan formally announced the nationalization of the islands, China dispatched two civilian patrol ships- reportedly the Haijian 46 and Haijian 49 vessels from the China Marine Surveillance- to “safeguard” Beijing’s sovereignty over the islands. Japan’s Coast Guard responded by deploying its own vessels to the Islands, according to Japanese news outlets.

All of this, while dangerous, is to be expected. What’s more peculiar is the United States’ role in these unfolding events.

From the beginning, it has been clear that Japan has sought to use its alliance with Washington to advance its claims to the islets. Indeed, it hardly seems coincidental that Japanese officials initially began leaking word of the imminent deal while Hillary Clinton was visiting China last week. Additionally, as Chinese media outlets have been so fond of noting, Tokyo’s ratcheting up of tension coincides with a joint U.S.-Japanese military drill.

Washington’s position on the matter has only further muddied the waters. As tensions between Japan and China have increased in recent months, the U.S has insisted that, while it doesn’t take sides on territorial disputes, the U.S.-Japanese defense treaty- which commits Washington to protecting Tokyo’s territorial integrity- covers the Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands. Thus, the U.S. has embraced the same kind of purposeful ambiguity that has characterized its policy towards Taiwan for over three decades.

As the situation has grown even more heated over the past week or so, the U.S. has further divested itself from it. During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit last weekend, Secretary Clinton and the U.S. delegation seemed to touch on every issue besides the Sino-Japanese dispute. The bulk of Secretary Clinton’s comments and energies during APEC were, appropriately enough, devoted to economic issues, particularly promoting stronger economic ties with Russia.

But even though Clinton met with Japanese Prime Minister Noda during APEC, U.S. officials billed this meeting beforehand as intended to address Tokyo’s lingering dispute with South Korea. Little was said about it afterward. Even after Japan announced the deal on Monday, the U.S. merely reiterated its desire to see Japan and China work together to solve the issue through dialogue, unconcerned at the impracticality of this occurring in the near-term.

The ambiguity of the United States’ stance on the dispute makes it difficult to discern what role it is actually playing. Indeed, Washington’s actions over the past week give rise to two widely diverging interpretations. The first, which is the one China will undoubtedly perceive, is that the U.S. is acting as a silent partner in Japan’s misadventures, privately endorsing them while not taking a position one way or the other in public.

On the other hand, the fact that Washington has failed to adopt a coherent position on the issue suggests that Japan may have blindsided the U.S. with the deal, and the Obama administration is still scrambling to come up with a response.

Neither bodes particularly well for the United States. In the case of the former, the U.S. is helping to destabilize the region as China’s state-media has long accused it of trying to do. In the latter case, America’s strongest regional ally is entrapping Washington in its own specific disputes with China, and the U.S. is failing to do anything about it. Given the number of U.S. allies in the region, falling victim to the “tail wags the dog” syndrome could prove extremely costly for the United States over the long-term.

Zachary Keck is the Assistant Editor of The Diplomat.

January 16, 2013 at 17:11

do you mean the Japan which invaded Manchuria and later in 1937 invaded all of china?  The Japan that ordered babies to be bayonetted in the Nanjing massacre so the troops wouldn't be bored?  That peaceful Japan.  The one that invaded Korea in 1911 and occupied it and used its women as "comfort" women?  Is that the "peaceful" Japan you are referring to.  Maybe there is a Japan I have never heard of.  Or maybe Japan was not peaceful and still isn't.

September 13, 2012 at 01:52

Keck gets it!

John Chan
September 13, 2012 at 01:05

You need to do a better job to sell snakeoil like the Pinoy’s master; China had seen your kind of unscrupulous proposal (letting international body to resolve territorial disputes) before (from Opium war to 1941), the result always was a blade on China to pay up the perpetrator and the mediator regardless who the aggressor was and how ridiculous the aggressor’s excuse was.
The only way to protect China’s territory is China itself, nobody else. Any Chinese does otherwise is a traitor.

September 13, 2012 at 00:51

The economy in Japan must be in a bad way at the moment.  Japan's current bellicosity with regards to various islands has managed to pit Japan against China, S. Korea and Russia simultaneously while N. Korea is still in the background. Also, an unintended consequence is that Japan has managed to draw Taiwan even closer to China because of the Diaoyu Islands.  Similar to, when Japan invaded China prior to and during WW II, the Chinese Communists and the KMT came together to fight the Japanese.

September 12, 2012 at 20:15



Two Chinese patrol ships reach waters around Diaoyu Islands(Xinhua)13:06, September 11, 2012

BEIJING, Sept. 11 (Xinhua) — Two ships of the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) have reached the waters around the Diaoyu Islands Tuesday morning to assert the country's sovereignty.

The CMS has drafted an action plan for safeguarding the sovereignty and would take actions pending the development of the situation, the CMS sources said.

As the above quote indicates, the two Chinese Marine Surveillance ships have reached the waters of the Diaoyu Island. As of now I haven't seen any report of an actual "contact" between Chinese ships and Japnese ships. I don't know what the Chinese are planning to do. From the phrase "pending the development of the situation" it doesn't seem like the Chinese will take some kind of proactive action. Hopefully, they will do more than just sail around the island a couple of times and then leave and never come back. I hope they will actually go onto the island and plant some kind of token of Chinese sovereignty like a flag or some erect some kind of physical monument like a stone map of China with Diaoyu Islands included as part of its sovereign territories. At the minimum the ships should be there until they are relieved by other ships to maintain a permanent patrol over the islands. And when Japnese ships come into the territorial waters, the Chinese ships should chase them away or arrest them for invasion. Anything short of this and China would lose its sovereignty over the islands. And the CCP government, especially Hu and Wen, must be condemned in the strongest terms by the Chinese people for gross dereliction of duty if not of treason.

September 12, 2012 at 19:45

Following your argument then Scarborough should be the Philippines and China has no business there. Also Spratley is for SEA as well.

September 12, 2012 at 19:21

The way I see it is that Japan finally decided that enough is enough, and decided to show China that it can also say “Get Lost”.
I think, parking some fishing boats next to the islands would not work well this time for the Chinese.

The Chinese have only themselves to themselves blame for provoking Japan.

John Chan
September 12, 2012 at 14:17

@Tom Tran,
“The US' role was over blown by Chinese,” is it a climbing down the ladder on behalf of the Vietnam’s master in the advent of USA’s defeat?
China has “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons; therefore it is not likely China will use full force on Japan at the beginning, but flattening Yokosuka, Sasebo, Maizuru or Kure is a possibility.
Neither Daioyu Islands nor Ryukyu Kingdom belongs to Japan, Japan’s provocative action at Daioyu Islands is a proof that it has no remorse about its war crimes.
Vietnam’s weapon is inferior to China, in according to your logic, shouldn’t Vietnam just keep quiet and not so bellicose against China?

September 12, 2012 at 13:58

what i'm more concerned about is how the Chinese Communist Party is going to react to this, and by extension, the PLA. The biggest reason for this concern is that, put simply, the PRC cannot back down; it has fanned the flames of victimization-based and sovereignty-based ultra-nationalism since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre to the point that viewpoints such as those presented by Vic and John Chan are no longer much of a minority, and as such it faces the demon that it created, a populace that calls for dramatic action in order to protect the PRC's implied sovereignty. The PRC is thus stuck between a rock and a hard place (pun unintended); use overwhelming force–diplomatic or military–to take this islands, which risks US intervention in a potential conflict and blacklisting the PRC as an international pariah, OR back down on the issue of the islands, and in the process see its legitimacy as the guarantor of the interests of the Chinese people all but scuttled…. so, as Vic once said, the onus of just what happens next is entirely up to the CPC and how it chooses to resolve this issue.  

September 12, 2012 at 13:41

You are partialy correct in that China has a larger army than Japan but the latter's Navy is bigger than the Chinese one. The Japanese have aircraft carriers while the Chinese only have a trainer carrier.  As the islands are far away the Japanese would have to use their aircraft carriers.  The USA will probably tell the Japanese by then to cool it.  If rejected, China will be tracking those warships as soon as they leave docks in Japan for the Diaoyu Islands. Absent of the USA being involved I would like to see how effective Chinese submarines the Chinese and missiles are against those Japanese warships.  An example of an older Chinese missile used by Hezbollah in Lebanon hit an Israeli naval warship to the latter's surprise in their last battle in 2006. 
As for the Spratley Islands, they being Chinese territory, delineates China's boundaries and not her coast.  Taiwan, China's little brother and original claimant to the Spratleys, actually occupies the largest island of that group.
The Japanese wallow in the ignorance of their vicious past and the discounting of the disdain many people in Asia have for Japan because of that past.  While you say Japan now wants to talk tough, the Russians merely yawn and the S. Koreans blew raspberries back.  Dokdo Island is near both Japan and Korea.  I don't see Japan starting something with that much smaller Korean population and economy.  Taking on China will be an entirely different ball game.

John Chan
September 12, 2012 at 13:40

Japan is an unapologetic war criminal and USA is the god father protecting that war criminal, it would be the dark age of humanity if both of them are not paper tigers.

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