Despite the brief hiatus in tensions between Japan and China over the Senkakus—islands historically owned and administered by Japan but in recent decades claimed by China—the issue is flaring up again. Two Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ships, including a submarine, entered the contiguous waters next to the islands and another island group in the area, both of which are part of Okinawa Prefecture in southwestern Japan, where the United States has a large and fairly robust military presence throughout the postwar period.
The lull in tensions had been due to the holding of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October, and not because of any fundamental shift in China’s world outlook and a newfound desire for true peace.
What makes this recent incursion into the area so worrisome is that China was not simply challenging Japan’s sovereignty over the islands but also testing the United States.
The island near which China stationed one submarine and then had one ship/frigate travel alongside—interestingly passing between the ships and the island rather than outward in the deeper waters—is actually, technically, managed by the US.
Taisho Jima, as the island is known in Japan, is also known as Sekibi-sho, and has been a US air-to-ground target practice area since the late 1940s. This was after the US began the military occupation of Okinawa following the battle and the start of the larger Allied Occupation of Japan in September 1945. (See my The Origins of the East China Sea Islands Dispute: Okinawa`s Reversion and the Senkaku Islands, Routledge 2014, for details.)
The US continued to administer the Senkakus after the San Francisco Peace Treaty went into effect in April 1952, and in May 1972, Okinawa, including the Senkakus, was returned to Japan. Despite the US and Allies having recognized Japan’s “residual sovereignty” at the time of the peace treaty, President Richard Nixon and Special Assistant Henry Kissinger, interested in secretly opening relations with China, undermined Japan’s status (and our own security) by adopting a policy of neutrality on the issue of sovereignty over the Senkakus.
During the years of US occupation and administration, the US utilized Taisho Jima and a second one (Kuba Jima, or Kobi-sho) for target practice. Our leasing of the islands, however, did not stop with reversion but continued after through the application of the 1960 US-Japan security treaty and attendant Status of Forces Agreement. In fact, we still technically own the ranges today.
Curiously, however, the ranges have not been used for 40 years. In June 1978, US forces in Japan abruptly stopped using them, for reasons unclear. It is highly probable that Japan’s pending signing of a peace treaty with China may have led to a request from the Japanese Foreign Ministry or the US State Department to discontinue use (while we continue to get “billed” for the ranges). The US may also have unilaterally made the decision due to its own interactions and hopes for improved relations with China (at the expense of Taiwan), but it appears to have been a decision between the two allies.
In any case, the ranges are still ours (provided by the Japanese government), and yet we let China pass right next to them (and to our most important ally’s territory) without doing anything about it to publicly support and perhaps enforce Japan’s rights. Would we allow a Chinese incursion next to our other bases in usual circumstances? China is very much testing the waters, literally.
Will the Trump administration pass this test? It better. And to do so, it better review its history lessons hard. The administrations of both parties have cheated on quizzes over the years and have only squeaked by. This is closer to an exam, and the failure of both the Republicans and Democrats to prepare for it will cost this country, not to mention our ally Japan, and our friends in the region dearly.
The US government’s combined failure on Senkakus policy began with a Republican administration in the early 1970s. (Only two years after the Okinawa Reversion Agreement was implemented, then-Secretary Kissinger half-jokingly suggested China be given the Senkakus.) Let’s hope the Republicans can correct their mistakes this time and join with Japan publicly and resolutely to criticize China now and if necessary in the future.
Robert D. Eldridge, PhD, is the former political advisor to the United States Marine Corps in Japan.