The Senkaku Islands dispute is the first Japan-China security crisis in seven decades of peace. This puzzling contretemps between Asia’s two giants unnerves the region, whose waters host half of global trade, and President Barack Obama faces a test. American power anchors the China-Japan balance in a tripod that is the unsung secret of East Asia’s peace and progress.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is worried. “As a result of the trust and confidence between Japan and the United States having gone through a pretty rocky period,” he told the Washington Post on February 16, “Japan’s foreign policy clout has been declining. And the stability in Japan’s adjacent waters and in the Asia-Pacific region is being affected, with acts of provocation seen against Japan’s territory and territorial waters.” Obama did not mention the Senkakus (Diaoyu in Chinese) in public during the prime minister’s visit, as Abe did at length, and much depends on the president’s acting upon his one strong sentence: “The U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security.” Only if he goes beyond “leading from behind” will peace hold in the East China Sea and Beijing receive an overdue message.
“Japan is back, keep counting on my country,” Abe said in Washington, but he will also need luck with his economic policy and agreement to join Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, to regain Japan’s clout as a top power and perhaps stir Obama from insouciance.
War or peace between China and Japan, and America’s coping with the consequences, has been a drama in East Asia for a century. In 1895 the weakening Qing Dynasty fought upstart Japan and was crushed; Beijing lost Taiwan, and soon Japan colonized Korea. Washington backed the loser. Repeatedly from then on, the United States failed to achieve good relations with China and Japan simultaneously.
As China recovered from the collapse of its 2,000-year-old Confucian monarchy in 1911, Japan pushed again with its infamous “21 Demands” for Chinese territory in 1915. When Japan invaded Manchuria, China’s northeastern provinces, in 1931 and launched full-scale war in 1937, the United States and United Kingdom wrung their hands and did nothing. The famous Kellogg-Briand love fest of 1928 “outlawing war as an instrument of national policy,” signed by 62 nations (including Japan!), turned out to be toothless.
Pearl Harbor ended the dithering, and the United States led the Allies in a deadly war with Japan. Chiang Kai-shek’s flawed China was the West’s ally from his wartime capital, Chongqing. This time the United States backed the winner, Japan lost, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki paid the price.
But Washington’s closeness with China ended when Mao Zedong defeated Chiang in 1949, and Stalin and Mao soon gave North Korea a green light to attack South Korea. For a quarter-century the United States was in a dangerous standoff with China, firming up security treaties with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others.
The breakthrough to China by President Nixon in 1971-72 began an economic transformation that replaced repeated fighting in East Asia (Japan-China, Korea, Vietnam, close shaves in the Taiwan Strait). This prosperity occurs under the umbrella of a U.S.-China-Japan entente. The potentially fraught relationship between Japan and China is finessed by superior U.S. power.
Not only have Japan and China been at peace, but they have become vital economic partners. And the United States for the first time in close to a century has achieved good relations with Beijing and Tokyo simultaneously. Smaller powers breathe easier after years of feeling pressured between a Communist bloc and an American bloc. Amusingly, the Australian academic Hugh White in a new book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, delighting U.S. declinists, urges an end to U.S. primacy so that Asia can enjoy “peace, stability, and opportunities to grow.” That’s exactly what U.S. primacy, keeping China and Japan steady, has afforded Asia for 40 years.
But this China-Japan-U.S. tacit entente is under threat amidst the rocky barrenness of the Senkakus. Like two champion footballers arguing over a pair of boots, Japan and China snarl and escalate. Japan points out the United States included the islands in the Okinawa Reversion of 1971. China says the islands have been Chinese since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
True, this is Japan’s dispute, not the United States’, but the two countries together face a broad challenge from China. Ronald Reagan at first felt neutral about the Falkland Islands dispute between Britain and Argentina in 1982, irritating Margaret Thatcher, but in the end he backed Britain for the sake of the alliance.