Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Has the Obama administration been tough enough with China?

Anybody who spends time in Singapore, Delhi or Seoul will appreciate how much anxiety China’s aggressive new stance on territorial disputes is causing in Asia. Japan is the most recent recipient of Beijing’s growing chutzpah. For several years now, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been surging its operations around the Senkaku Islands, which ...

By , the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Anybody who spends time in Singapore, Delhi or Seoul will appreciate how much anxiety China's aggressive new stance on territorial disputes is causing in Asia. Japan is the most recent recipient of Beijing's growing chutzpah. For several years now, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been surging its operations around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan (the islands are called the Diaoyutai in Chinese). PLAN submarines have circumnavigated Japan and PLAN destroyers have trained their deck guns at unarmed Japanese patrol planes. Over the past few months, Chinese fishing vessels have been swarming around the Senkakus in what Japanese authorities suspect is a coordinated operation. When a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard cutter on September 7, the Japanese ship arrested the Chinese captain on charges of obstructing law enforcement activities. China immediately responded by severing all high level diplomatic interactions with Japan and staging a series of predictable anti-Japanese protests.

The stand-off ended on September 24 when local Japanese prosecutors in Naha (Okinawa) announced that they would return the Chinese captain without pressing charges. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley welcomed Japan's decision, commenting that this is how "mature states resolve these things -- through diplomacy."

The Obama administration deserves credit for sending a strong signal of solidarity with Japan publicly throughout the confrontation with Beijing. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and others came out early and often to restate the U.S. commitment to the alliance with Japan and to reconfirm that U.S. obligations under Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty extend to the security of the Senkaku Islands, since they are administered by Japan. However, the administration should be deeply worried about the way this stand-off ended. Japan may have acted as a "mature state" and used diplomacy in search of a quick resolution, but Beijing unleashed a mercantilist assault on Japan that went far beyond the pale of international norms, including the arrest of four Japanese workers in Northern China on charges of "espionage" and threats to embargo critical rare earth metal exports to Japan (Chinese officials later denied the embargo threat after other advanced industrial economies howled, but markets gave that denial little credence).

Anybody who spends time in Singapore, Delhi or Seoul will appreciate how much anxiety China’s aggressive new stance on territorial disputes is causing in Asia. Japan is the most recent recipient of Beijing’s growing chutzpah. For several years now, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been surging its operations around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan (the islands are called the Diaoyutai in Chinese). PLAN submarines have circumnavigated Japan and PLAN destroyers have trained their deck guns at unarmed Japanese patrol planes. Over the past few months, Chinese fishing vessels have been swarming around the Senkakus in what Japanese authorities suspect is a coordinated operation. When a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard cutter on September 7, the Japanese ship arrested the Chinese captain on charges of obstructing law enforcement activities. China immediately responded by severing all high level diplomatic interactions with Japan and staging a series of predictable anti-Japanese protests.

The stand-off ended on September 24 when local Japanese prosecutors in Naha (Okinawa) announced that they would return the Chinese captain without pressing charges. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley welcomed Japan’s decision, commenting that this is how "mature states resolve these things — through diplomacy."

The Obama administration deserves credit for sending a strong signal of solidarity with Japan publicly throughout the confrontation with Beijing. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and others came out early and often to restate the U.S. commitment to the alliance with Japan and to reconfirm that U.S. obligations under Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty extend to the security of the Senkaku Islands, since they are administered by Japan. However, the administration should be deeply worried about the way this stand-off ended. Japan may have acted as a "mature state" and used diplomacy in search of a quick resolution, but Beijing unleashed a mercantilist assault on Japan that went far beyond the pale of international norms, including the arrest of four Japanese workers in Northern China on charges of "espionage" and threats to embargo critical rare earth metal exports to Japan (Chinese officials later denied the embargo threat after other advanced industrial economies howled, but markets gave that denial little credence).

In all likelihood, the Japanese government counted on Washington’s strong support to provide adequate cover for an exit strategy from the showdown and did not anticipate the seventh hour escalation by China. Now the Japanese media have universally declared the outcome a diplomatic defeat for Japan (even the Communist Party’s Akahata newspaper has demanded the government give an explanation). Prime Minister Naoto Kan will probably take a major hit in public support in the next round of public opinion polls. Worse, Beijing has come away from the crisis triumphant over Japan’s apparent capitulation in the face of overwhelming countermeasures. China’s hyper-nationalistic netizens and PLA officers will now expect the government to continue using blunt economic and military tools to put Japan in its place.

The administration can feel satisfied that it provided effective reassurance to Tokyo during this crisis, but the dissuasion message to Beijing has been inadequate. China’s neighbors are looking to the United States for leadership — this includes now even the ruling Democratic Party of Japan which not too long ago campaigned on the promise to distance its foreign policy from Washington. The administration should take full advantage of this opening by enhancing joint military exercises with allies and like-minded maritime states and by using Asia’s normally sleepy multilateral institutions to spotlight regional concerns about China’s more aggressive stance on territorial disputes. Secretary Clinton won kudos and diplomatic support across the region when she openly addressed China’s push for control over the South China Sea during her appearance at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July. Now it would be useful to find ways to demonstrate U.S. and regional concern about Beijing’s disproportionate escalation against Japan in the most recent dispute. This case is not closed. As one influential Indian politician put it to me on Friday, "this time it is Japan, but next time it could be us."

Michael J. Green is the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @DrMichaelJGreen

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.