Zachary Keck

The Senkaku Islands as Cold War Berlin

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Zachary Keck

The Senkaku Islands as Cold War Berlin

Despite important differences, the East China Sea dispute in many ways mirrors the Berlin question.

The Senkaku Islands as Cold War Berlin
Credit: wikicommons

Given the circumstances in which the planning took place, as well as the complexity of the issues involved, the WWII Allied powers did a commendable job creating postwar Europe. Proof enough of that is that, much like the Congress of Vienna, but in contrast to the Treaty of Versailles or even post-WWII Asia, no power was so dissatisfied with the postwar order that they were willing to wage war to change it. Indeed, despite the immense changes Europe has undergone since WWII, none have required a general war to bring about.

Berlin was the most glaring exception to the Allied powers generally prescient planning efforts. As one U.S. diplomat in Germany remarked bitterly in 1959, the “existence of [an] island of West Berlin, surrounded by hostile territory, results from political determination many years ago more remarkable for naiveté than long-range judgment.” The former and current capital of Germany was divided in a nearly unworkable manner that provided the fodder for many of the early Cold War crises, and helped bring the superpowers the closest to war they ever came. Although there are at least as many differences between the two, there are some telling similarities between Cold War Berlin and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands today.

In planning for the postwar era, the allied powers decided to make Berlin a divided city in a divided country. The city like the country was divided into four parts with the Soviets, British, French and Americans each controlling a sector (the Western powers unified their sectors during the first Berlin crisis in 1948). Although they had a vague idea of wanting to re-unify Berlin as the future capital of a German state, the onset of the Cold War quickly made that plan unworkable in the near term.

The biggest issues for both the U.S. and Soviets were borne out of the fact that Berlin was located deep inside East Germany. For the U.S. and its allies, this presented the thorny problem of how they could possibly protect this small chunk of territory should the Soviets and East Germans decide to move on the city. For the Soviets and their East German proxies, the main issue was that West Berlin was proving to be the major transit point for Warsaw Pact citizens seeking to immigrate to the Western world. This magnitude of the emigration problem lay not only in the sheer numbers of people fleeing, large though that was, but also in that those leaving were the Warsaw countries’ best and brightest citizens.

In the late 1950s, at a time when he believed the Soviet Union’s power to be surpassing that of the West, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to bring the issue to a head. He did this by threatening to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany if the four occupying powers weren’t able to come to an agreement over Berlin’s future within six months. Signing a separate peace treaty would be problematic for the Western allies as they’d have to negotiate transit rights to Berlin directly with the East German government, whose existence they refused to recognize.

Besides dealing with the emigration problem, and demonstrating greater Soviet power, Khrushchev’s gesture was aimed at exposing divisions within the Western alliance and undermining the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Europe. Largely for domestic political reasons, Western German leaders simply could not accept the U.S. and NATO powers implicitly recognizing the East German government. Although they were sympathetic to the dilemma West German leaders faced, the problem for American leaders, including both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, was that they did not wish to risk a general war with the Soviet Union over a territory that had only symbolic value to the Germans. They certainly did not want to wish a general war over as mundane and technical an issue as transit rights to such a marginal territory. The British were even more intransigent on these points.

Thus, Eisenhower, who had proposed the Berlin solution devised during WWII, later remarked that the U.S. had “made an error [in] attempting to control Germany from Berlin, so far behind Russian lines.” Kennedy similarly lamented that “We’re stuck in a ridiculous situation…. It seems silly for us to be facing an atomic war over a treaty preserving Berlin as the future capital of a reunified Germany” when “Germany will probably never be reunified.” Kennedy touched on the same theme when he noted that it was “particularly stupid to risk killing a million Americans over an argument about access rights on an Autobahn in the Soviet zone of Germany, or because the Germans want Germany reunified.”

A number of crises ensued over Berlin between 1958 and 1963. Although they greatly strained the Western alliance, ultimately Khrushchev backed down every time. Still, a crisis atmosphere gripped the superpowers during these years and the Berlin question directly led into the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is generally acknowledged as the closest Russia and the U.S. ever came to a general war during the entire Cold War period.

The similarities between Berlin during the early Cold War and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island dispute today seem obvious. To begin with, the crisis has its roots in the shortcomings of the post-WWII agreements. While the San Francisco Treaty demanded that Tokyo return all the territories it had conquered, it did not explicitly name which territories these were. The fact that the U.S. maintained control over the Senkakus during the occupation period suggests that Washington did view these islands as falling under the rubric of territories that Japan had conquered. Obviously, China would disagree.

Secondly, although Japan initially set off the current crisis when it decided to purchase some of the isles, a China that sees its power rising has sought to press and escalate the issue ever since. It has done so in no small part because, even more so than Berlin, the value of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is entirely symbolic. The issue therefore naturally threatens to divide the U.S. and its closest regional ally in Japan.

Japanese policymakers find it nearly impossible to cede any ground on the Senkaku issue, or even to acknowledge a dispute exists. While American statesmen certainly sympathize with the predicament their counterparts in Tokyo face, they cannot deduce the logic of risking war with China over a few uninhabited isles. Thus, when pressed by Beijing, Washington has sought a middle ground between trying to deescalate tensions without abandoning Japan, the latter of which could have grave implications for the entire U.S. alliance system in Asia.

This delicate balancing act has been evident in America’s refusal to take sides on the question of sovereignty over the islands, while still maintaining that they fall under the mutual defense treaty. Similarly, the U.S. immediately dispatched two B-52 bombers to challenge China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), but has not demanded China rescind the order creating the ADIZ and has recommended that its commercial airliners comply with Chinese demands.

Finally, the resolution of the Berlin Crisis defined the general tone and rules of the road for much of the subsequent Cold War. It’s quite possible that how the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute is handled will continue to impact future crises in the region for decades to come.