The U.S. Must Avoid the Trap on East China Sea

The U.S. Must Avoid the Trap on East China Sea

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Recently a strange “issue advocacy ad” appeared in the Wall Street Journal paid for by the Tokyo Metropolitan government. The gist of the ad is to tell the American people that the Tokyo government intends to purchase certain islands in East China Sea and is seeking American “understanding and support.”

The islands in question are ostensibly to be purchased from some private Japanese owner so one would wonder why American support is so important as to resort to such attention-grabbing ploy. Of course, there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye and the person orchestrating this scheme is none other than Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo.

Ishihara is a rabid right-wing nationalist previously known for giving America the middle finger salute in the ‘80s when he wrote the book, The Japan that Can Say No. He is despised by China and other Asian nations for prominently denying that the Nanjing Massacre and other WWII atrocities were ever committed by the Japanese imperial troops.

The string of islands Ishihara allegedly wants to buy are located north of Taiwan, referred to as Senkaku by the people in Japan and as Diaoyu by the people in China, Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora over the world. These islands are geologically connected to Taiwan and separate from the geological formation that makes up the Ryukyu (or Okinawan) island chain.

Japan claimed possession of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands since 1894 when the islands were made part of the Okinawa prefecture. But China had, since the 14th century, administered the islands as a part of Taiwan. These islands were ceded to Japan along with Taiwan in 1895 when the Qing forces lost the war with Japan.

At the end of WWII, according to the agreement struck by the leaders of the victorious Allies, Taiwan was returned to China and these islands should have been included. But for strategic reasons, the U.S. held onto these islands until 1972, at which time, the US handed these islands to Japan along with the Okinawan chain of islands.

There was no historical or geological justification for the regrettable American action. Instead, the action has directly led to the festering dispute between China and Taiwan on the one side and Japan on the other. Ishihara exploited this bone of contention to embarrass his own national government and raise the tension between China and Japan. The ad in the Wall Street Journal was his attempt to enlarge the dispute and bring the US into the boil.

Indeed, Ishihara has raised the temperature of the confrontation between the foreign affair ministries of China and Japan. Japan has had to recall its ambassador to Beijing and change to more of a hardliner. Cities in China raged with citizen protests, in some cases overturning Japanese branded police cars and smashing Japanese storefronts. Among the greater China, messages condemning Japan filled the Internet.

A group of activists from Hong Kong recently braved stormy seas to land at one of the islands to plant flags of China and Taiwan. Their subsequent arrest by the Japanese coast guard was followed by immediate demand for release by the Beijing and Hong Kong governments. Prompt release without formal charges by Japan was then met with vocal disapproval from the Ishihara followers.

Japanese Prime Minister Noda has been scrambling to repair the relations with China. Just as his office announced plans to meet China President Hu at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Ishihara is sending a team of “surveyors” to circle the islands, supposedly in order to evaluate the property preparatory to setting a purchase price—an obviously transparent attempt to add fuel to the fire and keep the China-Japan animosity high.

The American public needs to know that the Chinese reaction on these islands, whether from China, Taiwan or the diaspora around the world, is deeply rooted from a half century of humiliation suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism. Since Japan has never formally apologized for the many atrocities committed by their imperial troops in WWII, the Chinese people cannot forget. The question of ownership of these uninhabited rocks never fail to trigger heated outbursts from the Chinese people.

The squabble may seem trivial to the American policymakers but it is a tremendously emotional one for the Chinese people. Time and again it has been shown that it does not take much for the Chinese to react viscerally to provocations by Japan. There have been incidents of high seas chicken between fishing boats from China and Taiwan versus the coast guard cutters from Japan, each accusing the other for initiating the hostile bump and run. The incendiary nature of these incidents can quickly get out of hand, escalating into shooting conflicts.

The US State Department is aware of the sensitivity surrounding the islands but is playing the role of strategic ambiguity badly. The islands should never have been handed to Japan administratively. To this date, the State Department has to awkwardly demur when asked if the US security pact with Japan includes these uninhabited islands.

To make sure that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands do not become a flash point for escalation into large scale armed conflict, the U.S. must inform Japan that, in no uncertain terms, America will not go to war over disputes of these islands. By unequivocally taking the US out of the ring, provocateurs like Ishihara will not find the dry flint needed to set the ownership issue aflame. This is an important first step to cooling down the emotions and allows diplomacy between China and Japan to find a lasting resolution.


George Koo is occasional contributor to New America Media.