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Wind of change

Philip Cunningham considers why, as China rises and American power wanes, the US-engineered fog of ambiguity over the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets is losing its hold

The United States should urge Japan and China to “avoid any steps that might escalate tensions in and around the disputed islands”, says Sheila Smith of the US Council on Foreign Relations. It’s a view that resonates in Washington, but is it not the pinnacle of hubris for the US to chide China and Japan, as if they were schoolchildren fighting over a rock, when the US is part of the problem?

US cold-war strategy created the Senkaku/Diaoyu conundrum in the first place, with the Nixon administration fixing it so Japan had de facto control while not denying Chinese claims to the territory. Ambiguity of this sort served to wrong-foot both China and Japan, while seeming to cede the disinterested high ground to the US. It’s been equivocation wrapped in ambiguity ever since.

So far, Barack Obama’s Team America has only muddied the waters, modelling US-Asia strategy on a clumsy ball-court move; the problem is the “pivot” has been anything but a slam dunk. With Uncle Sam’s pivot foot trapped in the drone-war zone along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the other foot dragging in Pacific waters, the feint-to-the-East strategy has rattled China without scoring any points for the allies. Instead it has riled the region, where the response has been to ratchet up defence and military spending.

The pivot – fancy footwork going nowhere – is classic Obama, all finesse but no success, as Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping up the stakes and face off over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. The US is and isn’t committed to defending Japanese sovereignty, a hazy, lazy policy that could drag America into a ruinous battle along the fault line of the world’s three largest economies.

The ambiguous trilateral arrangement brokered by Nixon’s team lasted as long as it did because of the relative weakness of China and the formidable forces the US put forward in the region.

In 1945, the US won the war but lost the peace with Japan, where the imperious mentality has found new fields of dominion, and where the war has been continually invoked and revised by the entrenched right-wingers and Yasukuni cultists who rally around Prime Minister Abe.


With so much American blood and treasure wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US ability to control and influence events on the far side of the Pacific wanes by the day, even as Xi’s China Dream includes brash plans for a blue-sea navy.

With Wall Street preying on the remains of a broken economy, native industry all but hollowed out, and political leadership mired in identity politics and bipartisan squabbles, the US is losing its secure footing if not its mind. Like other empires in decline –Britain comes to mind – the inbred arrogance of ubiquitous imperial reach over the sea will persist long after actual power ebbs away.

At the apogee of its power in 1945, the US defeated Japan and took uncontested control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu isles, along with Okinawa, and other far-flung islands of Hirohito’s imperial empire, claims later ratified by the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952. Chiang Kai-shek, as representative of rump Republican China during the years of the ruinous civil war with the communists, had a legitimate claim, because China had been a US ally and the isles in question had been administered not from Okinawa but as an integral part of Taiwan under the law of colonial Japan. Obsessed with civil war, Chiang did not assert this right when it might have made a difference, though he later came to regret it.

As Washington issued the clarion call to combat communism and winds of the cold war buffeted the region, the US went from being pro-China to pro-Japan. Historical and geographical claims to the islands were shunted aside in favour of ideological considerations. There was zero chance that the US would hand over the contested islets to the very mainland it was trying so hard to contain, leaving Taiwan and Japan as the only contenders.


US-Japan relations blossomed and grew intertwined to the point where US president Richard Nixon gave word to Japanese premier Eisaku Sato that Okinawa would be returned to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, but the devil was in the details.

In a case of Beltway below-the-belt politics writ large, details of the Okinawa reversion were contingent on linkages such as concessions in trade, restricting textiles in particular, since “winning” the support of the US textile industry was a key factor in Nixon’s re-election strategy. Both Taiwan and Japan offered concessions for the isles, but Henry Kissinger, who by now was flirting with China in order to wind down the war in Vietnam, was not predisposed to deal with Taipei.


The furtive horse-trading with Tokyo, which was soon to suffer Nixon shock when the president made his famed overture to Beijing, resulted in a deal to keep US nukes off Okinawa (a promise not kept) while the Senkaku/Diaoyu isles were included as part of the Okinawa deal at the discretion of the US.

To fend off the inevitable complaints from China, the US granted Japan administrative control of the islets while taking a neutral position on sovereignty.

The result is quintessential Kissinger; an exquisite balance devoid of morality that flies in the face of common sense. It’s a variation of the have-your-cake-and-eatit-too school of diplomacy, most famously put to use in the Shanghai Communiqué in regards to the ambiguous “One China” policy that deemed Taiwan part of China in name but not otherwise. History shows that the cake strategy can work, as long as all sides co-operate.


The hardy wildlife that subsists on the uninhabited isles doesn’t care what the rocky outcrops are called, but for the sake of regional peace, the islets should be kept untrodden by the feet of man. The US should use its cachet with Japan to press for a hands-off policy in order that China might be obliged to do the same.

Call them the “fishing isles”, as China and Taiwan do, or the “pinnacle isles”, as the British did and the Japanese still do, and you get the picture. The dispute is about some jagged rocky outcroppings good for fishing and little else. Better to leave them to the goats and the gulls, than to wreck the world economy and tragically sacrifice human blood over the control of some forlorn rocks.

Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Wind of change