World War II never ended in Asia

The current battle overthe Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan is revealing a number of important truths about the state of the world that Asia-Pacific leaders ought to take to heart and act upon. First is the fact that its security commitments to Japan are entangling the United States in the internal politics of both ...

SAM YEH/AFP/GettyImages
SAM YEH/AFP/GettyImages
SAM YEH/AFP/GettyImages

The current battle overthe Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan is revealing a number of important truths about the state of the world that Asia-Pacific leaders ought to take to heart and act upon.

First is the fact that its security commitments to Japan are entangling the United States in the internal politics of both Japan and China over issues that are of secondary importance for Americans.

The current battle overthe Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan is revealing a number of important truths about the state of the world that Asia-Pacific leaders ought to take to heart and act upon.

First is the fact that its security commitments to Japan are entangling the United States in the internal politics of both Japan and China over issues that are of secondary importance for Americans.

Second is the fact that World War II is not yet over. Indeed, in both China and Japan, the embers of its dying fires are being fanned for domestic political gain by nationalist leaders hoping to capitalize on popular sentiment or to distract attention from other sensitive political issues. This is only possible because the grievances of the war have never been fully resolved either by serial Japanese apologies that have been widely perceived as qualified or by a willingness on the part of new generations of Asians to move on by absolving new generations of Japanese of blame.

Third is the fact that by increasing China’s wealth, integration of its economy into the global system has also dramatically increased China’s power and given it the ability to use intimidation both as a tool for obtaining satisfaction of grievances and as a safety valve to relieve domestic political pressure. This, of course, also means that contrary to expectations, globalization has not yet, turned China into a liberal, capitalist state run with a significant degree of transparency if not democracy. Despite having become the world’s second largest economy and its largest trading state, China is still capable of instant mobilization of mobs to attack foreign factories or surround the autos of foreign diplomats in the service of perceived domestic and foreign policy needs. In other words, the line between public and private policies and activities is fuzzy to non-existent.

These facts suggest the need for a re-think of U.S. policy and deployment in the Asia-Pacific region. They also suggest a way out that could be a step toward changing some of these facts on the ground.

With regard to U.S. Asia/Pacific policy, the recent adoption of the concept of the so called Pivot to Asia should be revisited. This pivot mainly entails more deployment of U.S. military forces in the region and a broadening and deepening of U.S. commitment to support the claims of its allies whether justified or not. It more or less inevitably means more U.S. involvement in disputes like that over the Senkakus and more U.S. unnecessary confrontation with China over things that matter very little to Americans.

There is no payoff for America in this. Keeping the Senkakus firmly in Japanese hands will not further open the Japanese market by one dollar’s worth nor will it inhibit the various policies most Asian countries use to entice direct foreign investment and technology transfer nor will it inhibit such countries from doing ever more business with China while doing less with America. Indeed, it may actually accelerate such activity by showing that America will insulate the rest of Asia from the possible negative consequences of becoming more dependent on China.

Washington could push everything in a very different and more constructive direction by urging Japan voluntarily to request adjudication of the question of ownership of the islands by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

In the first place, Japan’s claim is more than a little questionable. As Han-yi Shaw, a research fellow at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University points out, various Japanese documents seem to indicate that the islands were seized as war booty by Japan when it also took control of Taiwan as a result of the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. Indeed, the Japanese group that leased the islands from the Japanese government at the time mention in letters and notes that the islands came into their possession as a result of the victory of the Japanese Imperial Army.

A Japanese request coupled with willingness to transfer control of the islands would constitute the most powerful and genuine of apologies by Japan while it would also remove the Senkakus from the slate of domestic Japanese political issues.  It would also put China in a potentially revealing position. Any refusal of arbitration would undermine the sincerity of China’s assertions as well as its attractiveness as an economic partner. Successful arbitration would be a giant step toward finally ending World War II and toward fostering true globalization in the Asia-Pacific region. It would also obviate any need for further U.S. involvement of any kind. So it would be a win-win-win solution.

Clyde Prestowitz is the founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute, a former counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, and the author of The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership. Twitter: @clydeprestowitz

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