Senkaku/Diaoyu Conflict Endangers U.S’s Re-balance to the Asia-Pacific

On the international level, the significance of the relationship between the United States and China is twofold. Firstly, these two nations stand alone as social and political powerhouses and secondly, they heavily depend on each other economically. The United States may have the largest military and economy, but China’s economy continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, most notably serving as the world’s greatest exporter of goods such as electrical machinery and equipment. China exported over 300 billion dollars worth of goods in this category during 2009 and 71 billion dollars worth was exported to the United States. Due to the recent downfall of the U.S economy, hospitable relations with China must be maintained.  China could serve as a key factor in the rebuilding and stabilization of the future in America. The current territorial conflict in the East China Sea between China and Japan, however, threatens this relationship and its potential to aid the United States’ economy. A pre-existing security treaty from 1951 obligates the United States to get involved and defend Japan if armed conflict occurs. If a conflict did in fact break out between the Japan and China, by the treaty, the United states would have to support Japan.  This would clearly hinder U.S.’s relationship with China immediately. Though it appears to be a moral duty for the United States to follow through with their written obligations, it would be in the U.S.’s best interest to remain out of the conflict to most successfully secure a prosperous economic future.

In recent years, the Obama Administration decided to relocate the presence of the United States Department of Defense from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. This strategic shift, known as ‘re-balancing’, is welcomed by the Asia-Pacific region. The United States will be emphasizing a defense and security cooperation in the region. Besides military service, the United States also hopes to provide allies with assistance in developing human rights. It can be assumed that the U.S. carried out this strategy in response to growing tensions with North Korea, wanting to show its commitment to its strongest allies - Japan and South Korea. Joseph Yun, an Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, recognizes that “the future prosperity and security of our nation will be defined by events and developments in the region”. This new policy forms strong alliances with Asian countries, allowing both the United States and the aforementioned region to focus their shift towards the region’s security and prosperity. Not only will this re-balancing allow the United States to cultivate amicable relationships with Asian nations, but it will subsequently help the U.S.’s economy for the following reasons.

We, the United States, increased our investments in the Asia-Pacific over the past few years which considerably benefited our economy. Our investments have increased by twenty billion dollars from 2009 to 2011. The increase in exports links directly with increasing jobs for Americans, which is unquestionably beneficial for our economic welfare. Because of its status as a top exporter not only in the region, but also globally, China has become our main focus in the Asia Pacific. China will, in upcoming years, become the world’s most powerful nation due to the rate at which they develop infrastructures and increase manufacturing processes. Though the nation does not pose any threats to the United States or rest of the world due to its high status, it is important for countries to take China seriously and to try to be in  good standing with them. As such, it is important for the United States to keep a positive relationship with China because the United States depends on Asia for its successes just as Asia depends on the United States for its international market. Unfortunately, the current threat to U.S.’s association with China is the conflict in the East China Sea between China and Japan. The United States may become in a position to get involved in the conflict and if the United States makes the wrong decision, it can destroy the U.S.’s plan to re-balance in the Asia-Pacific.

To expand on the issue, China and Japan are engaged in a territorial conflict with regard to islets in the East China Sea,  known as the Diaoyu by the Chinese and the Senkaku by the Japanese. Historically, Japan’s government annexed these islands in 1895. A Japanese man started a business on one of the islets that failed in the 1940s. Since the failure of his business, no one has inhabited the islets. Since the islands were essentially empty,  the U.S. used these islets for military occupation after World War II, but in the early 1970s, the United States returned it to the Japanese, excluding sovereignty rights. During this same time period, the United Nations declared that there was a  possibility of oil and gas reserves surrounding the islets. Not surprisingly, this news brought a heightened interest in the islets for both Japan and China. Throughout the 20th century, China claimed ownership of the islets, but no vital action to obtain the islets occurred, therefore the dispute has been avoided. Regardless, serious tensions between Japan and China began to spark in Fall, 2012.

In September 2012, Japan’s Cabinet announced that it would purchase three of the five islets from a private owner. China became enraged over the proposition and warned Japan against the purchase, stating that doing so would lead to serious consequences. The United States joined China and advised Japan against the purchase. Kurt Campbell, a U.S. Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stated that “even though we warned Japan, Japan decided to go in a different direction”. It was clear to the United States that Japan’s purchase could trigger a big conflict with China, but Japan went ahead with it anyways. Now in 2013, we find both nations defending their sovereignty rights over the islets.

China continues to stand firm in their belief that the islets are under their authority and have expressed it clearly to both Japan and the United States. Though China has not attacked the Japanese militarily, it has been sending ships and aircrafts to scout the region as a symbol of confrontation towards the Japanese. China has also taken the extra step and escalated to the point of locking targets onto Japanese aircraft and ships. China’s provocative actions seem troubling to the rest of the world so the question becomes whether or not the competition lead to armed conflict if Japan does not relinquish the islets over to China.

The U.S. has repeatedly declared that it does not want to get involved in the territorial conflict in the East China Sea and hopes that the two nations will settle the dispute amongst themselves by coming to a peaceful agreement. Nonetheless, the United States also mentioned that if armed conflict does occur between Japan and China that they will intervene to defend Japan. The obligation of U.S. intervention is due to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty written after World War II.  Article I of the Security Treaty states that U.S. “forces may be utilized to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East and to the security of Japan against armed attack”. It directly states that the U.S. must support Japan as an ally in the event that a foreign nation attacks them. This implies that the U.S. will have to necessarily have a role in supporting Japan militarily if armed conflict occurs between China and Japan.

The United States, however, cannot afford to get involved in this situation.  It would immediately jeopardize U.S.’s relationship with China, which in turn damages the entire defense strategy to re-balance to the Asia-Pacific. Ultimately, the strong alliances formed with Asian nations such as Japan draws the U.S. into regional conflicts that the U.S. simply cannot afford. The United States and China have a complex, interdependent relationship. Even though both nations have different ideologies, they both depend on each other economically. Despite this relationship, China has stated that the presence of both the Japanese and Americans around the islets is seen as “provocative”. China knows that the U.S. has obligations to Japan and this causes doubt in China as to whether the U.S. is truly aiming to strengthen its relationship with China. China has also indicated that U.S.’s support is another form of containment. The Chinese government assumes that the U.S. and its allies want to restrict China’s power because it is such a rapidly growing nation. The powerful nations in the West, such as America,  must therefore feel threatened by this growth and want to suppress it. Joseph Yun said, “Let me be clear that we have no interest in containing China, but rather our policy is designed to increase cooperation with China on a wide range of bilateral, regional, and global issues”. Yun aims to console China by assuring them that the U.S.’ new role in the Asia-Pacific will be mutually beneficial. Unfortunately, his words may not be satisfying enough for China because of regular meetings held between Japan and the U.S. about updating defense plans over the East China Sea islets.

To avoid the potential conflict between the United States and China,  the United States should continue to remain neutral and uninvolved in the territorial conflict. It may be a moral duty for the U.S. to comply to its security-treaty with Japan, but is it worth jeopardizing its relationship with China? This is an ethical challenge that the United States needs to confront. It would be in the United States’ best interest to let Japan know immediately that it will not support them militarily in case of armed conflict with China. The United States needs to disregard the language in the security-treaty and leave territorial conflicts to be handled solely by the region. It is a disagreement between China and Japan which should be left entirely alone by the U.S. Announcing this reinforcement to China will strengthen the relationship between these two countries by eradicating any possible ulterior motive that China believes the U.S. holds against them. It is more important for the U.S. to strengthen its relationship with China because of the nation’s growing power rather than to commit itself to a security-treaty with Japan written in the past.

Let us reiterate that the United States’ shift to the Asia-Pacific region is an important defense move. This region provides many opportunities for Asian nations to form alliances with the United States which benefits each nations’ security and development. The United States’ plan to further increase its investments in the Asia-Pacific should alleviate any hostility between the Unites States and other Asian countries if the United States chooses to develop a powerful defense strategy. Therefore, the United States should remain out of the Diaoyu/Senkaku conflict completely. Supporting Japan will hinder the U.S.’s relationship with China, whereas leaving Japan and China to settle it themselves enhances the independence of the Asia-Pacific. It is ethically important for the United States to let the Security-Treaty go and to reassure Japan that it has no negative intentions because of the withdraw, but rather it should not be engaged in other nations’ territorial conflicts. This decision will help make the re-balancing policy more successful by preserving its relationship with China because it is the key country making this shift possible.

Ana Martinovic
University of California, Irvine
United States of America

Iris Soriano
University of California, Irvine


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Tags: #ConnectedWorld, Asia, China, East, Ethical, Ethics, Islets, Re-balance, Sea, U.S.


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