China's Defense Ministry announced a surprise decision a week ago Saturday to establish an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. The ministry said all aircraft that fly into the defined area will now be required to declare their intentions and adhere to the orders of Chinese air traffic controllers.
Two days later in Washington, US President Barack Obama challenged the Chinese move by sending two unarmed B-52 long-range bombers into the new zone. The aircraft took off from an air force base on the American island of Guam and, a few hours later, penetrated the Chinese surveillance zone without notifying Beijing. B-52s are designed to carry nuclear bombs to their targets. It was a strong signal.
When news of these US flights broke, it boosted confidence in Tokyo and in Seoul. Since then, Japan and South Korea have also dispatched military aircraft into the Chinese zone. China responded by placing its air force on alert and sending up fighter jets to escort Japanese and American planes. The situation begs an obvious question: What happens if a foreign fighter jet and a Chinese interceptor meet and one of the pilots loses his nerve?
Today, US Vice President Joe Biden met with Japan vice prime minister and he will also meet Abe Shinzo, Japanese Prime Minister, then he will travel to Beijing. This was initially intended to be a relaxed meeting with President Xi Jinping, whom Biden knows well. But instead Obama's deputy now has to consider some serious questions: Could the Far East actually stumble into a war? What is driving the parties involved in this island dispute, which has been smoldering for decades, and is now threatening to become extremely dangerous? And what can the US do to avert an escalation?
Ever since it incorporated the Senkaku Islands into Japanese territory through a Cabinet decision in 1895, the Japanese government has consistently taken the position that the islands are an integral part of the territory of Japan. The Senkaku have consistently been under Japan’s effective control, except for a period (from 1945 to 1972) when the islands were placed under the administration of the United States as part of Okinawa prefecture.
Before 1971, neither China nor Taiwan made any claims to “territorial sovereignty” over the Senkaku Islands. For 76 years, neither government expressed any objection to Japanese sovereignty over the islands.
In the late 1960s, a UN agency, the Bangkok-based Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), surveyed the waters around the Senkaku. The survey suggested potentially rich deposits of oil beneath the seabed. After the ECAFE released its findings, in 1971, Taiwan made its first territorial claim to the islands. Several months later the People’s Republic of China followed suit.
China argues that Japan stole the Senkaku Islands during the Sino-Japanese war, from August 1894 to April 1895. The claim suggests Japan “usurped” the islands using the turmoil of war as an excuse.
According to Beijing, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in April 1895, the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands (including the island of Senkaku/Diaoyu) to Japan.
China has recently begun quoting the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration as evidence of its claims. Beijing argues that Japan’s acceptance of these declarations means that it agreed to return the Senkaku to China along with Taiwan and the Pescadores as “islands appertaining to Taiwan.”
The Cairo Declaration obliged Japan “to restore to the Republic of China all the territories Japan has stolen from the Qing Dynasty of China such as Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores.” Article 8 of the Potsdam Declaration stipulated, “The Cairo Declaration shall be implemented.”
China also maintains that proof of China’s sovereignty over the Senkaku can be found in descriptions of the islands in old documents from the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. It says it named the islands.
The San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in September 1951, defined the territory of Japan after the war: Article 2 (b) of the treaty stipulated that Japan renounced territorial sovereignty over Formosa and the Pescadores, which the treaty said had been ceded by China to Japan after the Sino-Japanese War. However, the Senkaku Islands were not included “in the islands appertaining to Formosa” in the treaty. Had the Senkaku, at that time, been recognized as “islands appertaining to Taiwan,” the U.S. would not have placed the Senkaku under its administration as part of Okinawa prefecture. In this respect, China’s claims are without legal foundation.
China's motives in this conflict are clear: One year ago, the country surpassed the US as the world's largest trading nation, and 90 percent of Chinese exports are shipped by sea. At the same time, the rapidly growing country has been racing to establish its naval presence. Yet it bothers Beijing's military leaders that Chinese access to the Pacific is blocked by a chain of islands and peninsulas that are controlled by American allies.
The so-called "first island chain" has become a strategic obsession for the Chinese. China's navy celebrates maneuvers in which its ships sail out into the Pacific -- as the aircraft carrier Liaoning did last week -- as the "breakthrough" of this chain. Right in the middle of this chain, only 600 kilometers from the bustling port of Shanghai, lie the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.
In the eyes of China's military, logic dictates that the country should gradually expand its airspace to include these islands; they view all objections from competitors as pure envy. The timing is most convenient for China's new political leadership. By taking a hardline approach on foreign and defense policy, it can now silence critics who suspected that the government had become too liberal with recent sweeping economic and social reforms.
China's simplest means of demonstrating its resolve in the current nationalistic climate in East Asia is to take a tough stance against Japan. Neither the perpetrators nor the victims have come to terms with the years of occupation -- and the war crimes committed -- by the Japanese on Chinese soil during World War II. It is easy for China's leaders to score political points against the Japanese in a bout of saber-rattling.
The Obama administration had generally refrained from getting too deeply involved in the conflict. And even though the White House left little doubt last week that the Senkaku islands fall under the protection of the US-Japanese military alliance, it also stopped short of overtly taking sides with Japan.
Meanwhile, Tokyo is reveling in the US show of strength in the Pacific, taking it as a sign of solidarity. From Japan's perspective, China's efforts to expand its air defense zone have backfired. Beijing's unilateral action instead forced the Americans to more declaratively take sides with the Japanese in the ongoing island dispute.
In 2011, Obama announced a "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region, shifting the American approach to China. The move was seen as a way of not only continuing US cooperation with China, but also containing Beijing's power in the region. "As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future," Obama said.
US reengagement in the Asia-Pacific also referred to America's military presence. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama's chief military adviser says, "The US military will be obliged to overtly confront China as it faced down the Soviet Union." By 2020, the Pentagon intends to station roughly 60 percent of its naval military forces in the Pacific, including six aircraft carriers and numerous destroyers, cruisers and submarines.
In 2011, the US began to expand its military presence in Australia, the first US military build-up in the Pacific since the Vietnam War. In the future, up to four US warships will be allowed to moor in the city-state of Singapore. Since 2011, former wartime opponent Vietnam has allowed the US Navy to use the port of Cam Ranh Bay.
Meanwhile, the Philippines are likely to become America's most important partner in a separate, but similar, conflict over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Some 40 percent of international maritime trade passes through those contested waters.
Washington and Manila have been negotiating since August on stationing more US Marines in the country. Filipino Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has already announced that the US will in the future inform his country's armed forces if Chinese ships enter territorial waters claimed by Manila. In exchange, US warships will soon be able return to Subic Bay, a Filipino naval station that the US Navy vacated in 1992.
The growing US military presence is intended to reassure America's closest Asian allies, but China views US encroachment in the region as a threat. Vice President Biden, who is in the region, must maintain a delicate balance: He has to reassure US allies, yet at the same time caution them not to overreact. He also has to warn China over its provocative air defense zone, while maintaining an ongoing relationship between the two world powers.
What will China Do?
One option on the Senkaku issue would be to seek arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Since Japan is certain of the legitimacy of its sovereignty over the Senkaku, it would be pointless for it to lodge any claim. But if China did so, and agreed to accept whatever ruling was handed down, Japan might also think it beneficial to defer to the ICJ, demonstrating that it is ready to abide by internationally accepted rules. Both Japan and China would have to be prepared to run the risks inherent in such a decision.
Any improvement in China-Japan relations should be welcome. Both countries refer to it as “a strategic relationship of mutual interest.” Needless to say, Japan and China should maintain dialogues and exchanges and use compromise where possible to contain tensions.
China’s moves are mainly designed to hold Japan in check while at the same time trying to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States. China’s rigid diplomatic stance today is likely to remain unchanged at least for the immediate future. Japan should maintain the position that it is always ready to talk with China about any issue without condition.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: AFP-An aerial view of some of the islands that are part of the disputed cluster known as the Senkaku (in Japan) and Diaoyu (in China).