US must make clear its stance over Senkakus

Yoichiro Sato says key ally Japan expects greater commitment to its territorial defence

During the past two years, Japan has experienced major setbacks in each of its three territorial disputes with neighbours - the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with mainland China/Taiwan, the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute with South Korea, and the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands dispute with Russia. Although Japan's economic and political turmoil laid the ground for the bold claims by its neighbours, each dispute is different.

The Senkaku dispute in particular requires a slight but immediate and carefully calibrated revision to US policy. Failing to do so risks emboldening China to militarily occupy the islands. The US should act proactively through diplomatic pre-emption.

On Senkaku, Japan has retained administrative control of the islands since 1972. Of the three, the US-Japan security treaty only applies to the Senkaku case. At the same time, the US takes no position on the question of sovereignty.

Yet, the US is torn by: one, its alliance with Japan and Japan's effective control of the islands; two, the claim by Taiwan, a US security partner; and three, the claim by mainland China, with which it has growing economic relations and military rivalry.

Japan increasingly sees its military alliance with the United States as a key ingredient of its security policy and has upgraded its contributions to the alliance. In return, Japan expects a greater US commitment to Japan's territorial defence.

The US is seemingly in a catch-22, where making a clearer commitment to the defence of the Senkakus would antagonise China, while not making this commitment would both embolden China and isolate Japan. However, creative linkages with other bilateral and regional issues would create gains for the US.


For example, concessions from Japan on the issue of military bases would be made easier in return for a clearer US commitment to the defence of the Senkakus. Seeing Japan get a clearer US commitment, Southeast Asian parties in the South China Sea disputes could be steered towards suspending their preference for limiting freedom of navigation in their claimed exclusive economic zones, which the US opposes.

Careful consideration must be paid to Taiwan, however. Both Beijing and Taipei make similar arguments about Chinese use of the Senkakus pre-1895. US support for Japan's sovereign claim would be a diplomatic loss to Taiwan; the US stance can simply be phrased against any attempt to alter the status quo.

US policy on the Senkaku dispute is perceived as ambiguous by its primary ally, Japan. This perceived ambiguity needs to be clarified to keep the US-Japan alliance solid.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US must make clear its stance over Senkaku row