Yesterday it was reported that Chinese ships have been present in the contiguous zone outside Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands for 100 days straight, facing little more than official protests and patrols by the Japan Coast Guard.
Of course, those of us who track this have been watching from day 1—April 14—and are not surprised by the Chinese government’s brazenness, and the Japanese government’s weakness.
Both these descriptions are unfortunately accurate. Official Chinese ships are regularly seen in the area, patrolling there as if the islands were theirs. Not only this, but incursions into Japanese territorial waters happen frequently.
China’s Growing Aggression
In a recent example, two Chinese Coast Guard ships entered Japan’s waters on July 4 and approached a private Japanese fishing vessel multiple times, following and otherwise harassing it. Those ships remained in Japanese waters for 39 hours, eventually departing in the late afternoon of July 5.
If this were not bad enough, the same two vessels were there for 30 hours between July 2-3. It is almost as if they are stationed in Japanese waters, and only leave them temporarily to refuel and resupply. The Japanese government does little more than issue a protest. Other countries would sink them, or at least fire on them.
Instead, Japan immediately looks to Washington when tensions increase, and the State Department and Pentagon duly confirm that yes, indeed, the Senkaku Islands fall under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
We know that. We have known it since 1971 when the Okinawa reversion agreement was being explained in the U.S. Senate and State Department officials confirmedー then and thereー that the security treaty does in fact apply.
Inconsistent statements by officials in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s do not change this.
U.S. officials will say that not only is such a confirmation meant to reassure the Japanese public, but is also to warn the Chinese side from changing the status quo through force. Unfortunately, China has been seeking to change the status quo since the day the reversion agreement went into effect. Indeed, before that.
It appears they are hoping to trigger a Japanese escalation, such as Japan deploying gray ships (i.e., its Maritime Self-Defense Force), or an incident in which Japan is (or appears to be) the aggressor, thus nullifying Article 5, which states: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
It is usually only this phrase that gets cited. But remember the second half: “Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”
With the People’s Republic of China being a nuclear-armed permanent member of the Security Council, does anyone think the United Nations will function properly, especially when it is China that is seeking to change the status quo for its own benefit?
In any case, an Article 5 scenario—that of a full-scale military attack on Japanese territory—is the least of the U.S.-Japan Alliance’s worries. Japan’s right of self-defense is clear. Regardless of the often-dysfunctional UN, international society would understand Japan and the U.S. responding. This assumes, however, that Japan can muster the political will to fight using its never-combat-tested Self-Defense Forces and the coordinating mechanisms of the alliance function as designed.
It is the gray zone scenarios—those that fall short of an Article 5 situation, such as a Gulf of Tonkin-like clash offshore of the islands (thus the danger of Chinese ships regularly being in the area or entering Japanese waters), or a large number of Chinese “fishermen” (armed, currently or formerly belonging to the People’s Liberation Army or other related organizations) landing on any or all of the islands—that have always been more worrisome for me, as someone who has studied and written about this issue for the past decade-plus.
Fortunately, Japan has begun to examine the challenges and discuss responses with its only ally, as well as beef up its Coast Guard and police force to handle outer island incursions. Japan is also concluding a multilateral naval exercise with Australia and the United States today in the South China Sea, as I write this.
U.S. Ambiguity an Invitation to Trouble
But there is a worse scenario. That China takes military action and succeeds without a fight, thus causing the U.S.-Japan alliance to crumble. The United States could pull out of Okinawa, and likely the rest of Japan. Taiwan would quickly be lost, Japan neutralized, and the wide Pacific all the way to Guam or Hawaii (and eventually the rest of the Pacific islands and the coast of South America) could come under Chinese influence.
How would China do it? Easily. Reference the flawed Okinawa reversion agreement that reverted the Ryukyu Islands, under U.S. occupation and administration from April 1, 1945 to May 15, 1972.
That agreement, signed on June 17, 1971, was prepared by the State Department. But it was tweaked and finally approved at the very last second by National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger and U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, who were in the middle of negotiating Kissinger’s first visit to China to prepare the way for Nixon’s presidential trip the following year.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry fought the good fight, trying to get the United States to acknowledge Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. But U.S. negotiators resisted, instead agreeing only to the delineation of Nansei Islands’ boundaries. They did not even allow a map—a clear visual guide to show that Japanese jurisdiction included the Senkakus—to be appended to the agreement.
When I heard the U.S. State Department’s spokeswoman this week state that the American position had not changed with regard to the Senkakus—that they fall under Article 5 of the security treaty—I wanted to remind her that yes, in fact, your position has changed over time on a larger, more relevant matter.
The United States and allies had previously recognized Japan’s “residual sovereignty” ー essentially, continued sovereignty ー over the Nansei Islands of which the Senkakus (since 1895) are a part, as per the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which went into effect in 1952. While Article 3 does not specifically state so, its architect John Foster Dulles officially and publicly spoke those words on September 5, 1951, as he explained the treaty’s contents to the conference participants.
Thus, until May 14, 1972, Japan had residual sovereignty over the Senkakus (but no administrative rights). However, the very next day when Okinawa reverted, Japan suddenly had administrative rights but not recognized sovereignty over the Senkakus, at least in the eyes of the Nixon administration which was doing everything it couldーincluding sacrificing Taiwanーto establish relations with the Communist regime in China.
This sleight of hand, after recognizing Japan sovereignty over the Senkakus for more than 75 years, was very much a change in the U.S. position. Not only has it weakened Japan’s position over the past five decades, but it also fundamentally undermines the security of the region on which the United States is so dependent.
What if the Worst Case Scenario Happened?
And here is the biggest problem. What this means is that China, when it takes some action in the Senkakus in the future, can point to the obvious gaping hole in America’s position and argue that the U.S. government does not clearly recognize Japan’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands, but it also does not deny China’s claims to them. Therefore, from such moment onward, Beijing is placing the islands under its effective control. China would permanently ban Japanese ships and airplanes from the area, along with American vessels, of course.
In one motion, like the game Othello, the tables would be turned, and Japan and the United States would become the aggressor if they try anything.
The inconsistency of the U.S. position does not end here. The American public, in the middle of unprecedented civil unrest amid an unprecedented pandemic or whatever domestic crisis we face at that moment in time, will ask themselves, “why should we defend territory of an ally whose sovereignty we’re not sure we recognize?”
Japan’s modest efforts to defend the Senkakus have been too little, too late. Indeed, it focuses its efforts on what to do after the islands are seized, rather than how to prevent that situation from happening in the first place. My strong sense (after 30 years in Japan) is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling party have lost the support of the public with that approach.
Only U.S. Clarity can Deter a Conflict
It is up to the United States to take the lead. Doing so also preserves our presence and influence in the region. Lose the Senkakus, and the aforementioned scenario in the Pacific is a given.
If the U.S. military—with its COVID-ridden force and burnt-up amphibious assault ships—is to be taken seriously on this matter, the U.S. government needs first to correct its strategic diplomatic blunder of the past. It must recognize, or more accurately re-recognize, Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien should immediately huddle with his State Department colleagues and correct his predecessor’s mistake of 49 years ago.
Importantly, doing so may reduce the chance of conflict because it removes the ambiguity. China has been able to take advantage of this policy of U.S. neutrality in the territorial dispute for the past half-century, ironically making a clash inevitable. This is probably the last chance to lay down the law.
President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a recent example of ending stated neutrality on a territorial issue. It can be done. And in this case, it should be done.
It is in our interests (and that of the region as a whole) as much as it is in Japan’s. If you, President Trump—who likes to say you put U.S. interests first—can’t do it for Japan’s sake, then do it for ours.
Author: Robert D. Eldridge, PhD