On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera met in Washington D.C.
Their discussions touched on what they described as a "full range of issues facing the U.S.-Japan alliance." This included hot topics such as "North Korea's destabilizing behavior, threats to maritime security, and our shared efforts to enhance our defense posture and capabilities to respond to the 21st century challenges."
And, of course, challenges in the East China Sea were specifically mentioned. For his part, Secretary Hagel once again restated the U.S. position in no uncertain terms: "In our discussion today, I reiterated the principles that govern longstanding U.S. policy on the Senkaku Islands. The United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, but we do recognize they are under the administration of Japan and fall under our security treaty obligations."Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Hagel also added, "Any actions that could raise tensions or lead to miscalculations affect the stability of the entire region. Therefore, the United States opposes any unilateral or coercive action that seeks to undermine Japan's administrative control, a message General Dempsey conveyed to his counterparts last week in Beijing. "
Defense Minister Onodera also reiterated Japan's stance adding that "the islands are clearly an inherent part of the territory of Japan, in light of historical facts and based upon international law, and that Japan is determined to protect its land, water and air. "
"Secretary Hagel and I confirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands and that we are opposed to any unilateral action that aims to change the status quo by force. "
According to the People's Daily, citing an interview with "Washington-based Chinese media," China's Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, seems to have taken issue with the comments by Hagel and Obodera. According to the article, Cui "said some of Hagel's remarks on the meetings between Dempsey and the Chinese side do not square with the facts."
"The Chinese side held in-depth exchange of views on a wide range of issues with Mr. Dempsey and clearly expressed China's stances and opinions. I believe relevant U.S. parties have already received briefings on the meetings and should have a good knowledge of the facts," Cui explained.
Cui noted that it is Japan and not China that created tensions by taking "unilateral or coercive actions" on the issue of the Diaoyu Islands (Japan refers to them as the Senkaku islands.)
"On this issue, we can see the bare facts and who is right or wrong," he said.
Cui also noted, according to the article, the recent visit by Japanese lawmakers to the Yasukuni Shrine.
While such back and forth is certainly to be expected, positions on both sides of the dispute seem to be hardening. With China recently declaring the islands a "core interest," hopes that a compromise, or at the very least, a return to the status quo, seem all but dashed.
With Chinese non-naval maritime vessels and various types of aircraft coming close to the islands with Japan feeling pressed to respond, the real danger is that one party may overreact or make a mistake in a tense situation. With both parties expressing quite dug in positions, such posturing could make it hard to dial down a crisis if someone was injured or killed in an incident. Let's hope the United States and possibly other parties are working behind the scenes to lessen tensions. A conflict between the world's number two and number three economies is something the entire globe has a vested interest in avoiding.