If the unthinkable happens, and the dispute in the East China Sea between Japan and China over the Senkaku islands (called the Diaoyu islands by the Chinese) escalates into a military conflict, will the U.S. military really come to the aid of Japan? This is certainly the implied position of the Obama administration, but would it be able to follow through on this commitment? If not, what impact will this have on future relations with Japan and in Asia? These are very important questions, yet no one is asking them; this is because no one thinks they need to be asked.
On the surface, this is true. In late April 2014, President Obama twice stated that the disputed islands are, in his words, “administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.” The president’s statement affirmed a position that had already been articulated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of State John Kerry, and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. It was, nevertheless, very well received in Japan, with one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s advisors declaring it “the most reassuring statement that the nation has ever heard from the U.S.“
At the same time China has been cleverly taking actions, such as setting up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in area, which might call into question Japan’s administrative control over the Senkaku. So far, this has not altered the position of the Obama administration. Nor has it influenced Congress, which added a resolution to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act stating “the unilateral action of a third party will not affect the United States’ acknowledgment of the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands.”
This latter resolution is significant because, in the end, Congress may be the most important, and most vulnerable, institution when it comes to defending Japan. To understand why, it is helpful to look at the actual text of the U.S.-Japan treaty
According to Article 5 of the treaty, each country is obligated “to meet common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” (my emphasis). Lest one think that that this language was intended only to acknowledge Japan’s constitutional restrictions, a similar reference to constitutional demands is common in joint security arrangements entered into by the U.S. It is found, for example, in the NATO and SEATO treaties. According to the Congressional Research Service, the language was intended “to satisfy congressional concerns that the agreements could be interpreted as sanctioning the President to take military action in defense of treaty parties without additional congressional authorization.” This understanding is confirmed by 1973 The War Powers Resolution, which specifically states that presidential authority to unilaterally send troops into harm’s way shall not be inferred “from any treaty heretofore or hereafter ratified unless such treaty is implemented by legislation specifically authorizing the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”
There is, of course, an ongoing legal controversy in the U.S. over the extent of war powers given to the president as commander and chief of the military. Obama’s position on this matter is far from clear. In response to a question from the Boston Globe back in 2008, candidate Obama explained “the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” In Libya in 2011, however, President Obama acted very differently, using American airpower to enforce a no-fly zone without seeking Congressional authorization. In Syria in 2013, however, the President refused to act without first consulting with the Congress. David Rothkopf wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that by going to Congress Obama had now made it “highly unlikely that at any time during the remainder of his term will he be able to initiate military action without seeking congressional approval.”
If this is correct, then in the event of a battle in the East China Sea, Obama’s first reaction may not be to provide immediate military assistance. Instead, the president will request an authorization from Congress.
Will this authorization be forthcoming? Based on the prior resolution, the answer appears to be yes. It is useful to recall that, at first, it seemed likely that Congress would support Obama’s call to use force in Syria. After all, both Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner supported this action. It was only after Congress and the public began paying attention to what was actually happening in Syria that it became clear that the votes were not there.
Of course one cannot directly compare Syria and Japan. In Syria, the U.S. was not sure whether it had friends on either side of the conflict. More importantly, no treaty obligations were involved. Still, as it was with in Syria, the U.S. public knows very little about the islands that are the subject of so much debate between Japan and China. In the event that open hostilities break out over the islands, this will quickly change. How will constituent phone calls and e-mails trend when voters learn that the U.S. government’s position is that it takes no position on which country has the more valid claim to the islands? Will the public support risking World War III (that is undoubtedly how it will be portrayed by those opposing action) to defend territory whose ultimate owner, according to the U.S. government, is in dispute?
These questions should be bothering not only Japan’s friends in Washington, but also her leaders in Nagatachō. The Obama administration’s persistent assurances about section 5 coverage, insofar as they ignore the role of Congress, may be providing Japan with a false sense of security. At the same time, the continued insistence that the U.S. is neutral with regard to sovereignty over the islands has provided China with a valuable argument that it can exploit to influence U.S. public opinion. It may well be that China’s ultimate goal is not only to possess the islands, but more importantly to weaken the relationship between the U.S. and Japan.
In the end, Obama and his advisors need to remember two things. First, international relations is as much about anticipating threats as it is with dealing with problems as they emerge. Second, even in the area of international relations, Congress matters. This may nowhere be truer than in the East China Sea.
Paul Sracic is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Youngstown State University in Ohio, where he also directs the Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Center.