Why the Japan-China Senkaku dispute is the most explosive issue in Asia

Why the Japan-China Senkaku dispute is the most explosive issue in Asia

While there is no scarcity of trouble in the Sino-American relationship, special attention should be paid to the unfolding Sino-Japanese contretemps over the Senkakus (which China and the Republic of China call the Diaoyutais). During the last few years the bulk of Washington’s attention has been focused on disputes between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines. Obviously, these are important. Manila is a treaty ally, and Vietnam is a potential strategic partner. In both cases we have dual interests in de-escalation and in helping the two countries stand up for their rights and interests.

But Japan is different. It is arguably Washington’s most important ally. A successful Asia strategy is impossible without a strong alliance with Japan. Japan’s location makes it essential to any U.S. military operation in Asia. Its strength and resilience make it a reliable partner. Its shared sense of interests and values cement our bond. And, Japan is still a very strong and militarily capable country.

China’s incessant incursions into Japanese and disputed waters, and its bullying and badgering of Japan over the Senkakus, have prompted an unproductive nationalist response among some politicians in Japan. But it is Beijing that has created a vicious cycle. Its provocation leads to nationalism. Japanese nationalism in turn sparks strong emotions among the Chinese people. But the Chinese Communist Party also looked the other way as Japanese businesses in China were ransacked and boycotted.

While the United States affirmed that the U.S.-Japan treaty covers the Senkakus, there still is a disagreement between Washington and Tokyo over who has sovereignty over the islands. This disagreement dates back to the 1970s and is yet another manifestation of the careless and rushed way in which Washington handled its normalization with China.

Japan feels isolated, and cannot understand why Washington remains neutral over this sovereignty dispute. Japan has a point. The United States has dined out on a neutral stance — falling back on apathy toward the outcomes of territorial disputes throughout Asia, as long as they are "resolved peacefully" — for a long time. This position was reasonable enough when China was weak and unable to press its claims, but those days are over. Is the United States really agnostic about the outcome of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas? Of course not. It does not want conflict, but neither does it want China to control territories that sit along important sea lanes.

Washington also wants to side with its allies. The time has come to assess how we really want the various sovereignty disputes in key waters to be resolved. The assessment should be based both on calculated geostrategic interests as well as the interest we have in supporting friends and allies.

The Sino-Japanese dispute may be the most important test for the United States in Asia in the coming year. The tension between two very powerful countries shows no signs of abating. Japan will not back down from its sovereignty claim. In this case, Beijing is playing with fire. While ambiguity is sometimes necessary, the need for clarity from the United States is pressing. As China challenges the established order — one that has kept the peace in Asia for three decades — the United States must take the lead in defending that order. That means standing by an ally. Perhaps even more daunting, it also means the time has come to define our preferred outcomes in territorial disputes between China and our friends.