The standoff between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands is much more than a territorial dispute, writes RIKKI KERSTEN.
Is the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku islands an East China Sea standoff over ownership of ‘goat-infested rocks’, as The Economist recently and memorably said, or is there something more at stake for both countries?
While history and resources are clear drivers of the dispute, wider geopolitical developments and strategic rivalry also lay at the heart of the problem. Indeed, the Senkaku issue highlights the difficulties involved in power shift, strategic competition, and technological change.
History reveals plenty of potential causes for contention over the islands, including war, invasion and atrocity. But, the complex tapestry of wrangling over the islands was woven during the Cold War stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union. When the islands were returned to Japanese administrative control by the US in 1971, the US had already embarked on its historic engagement policy with China, as part of its Cold War containment of the Soviet Union.
Japan was a vital part of that strategic play, but mainly through its postwar security treaty with the US. The core bargain of the Yoshida Doctrine – hosting US bases in return for the US ensuring the defence of Japan – established a containment-oriented US force posture centered on Okinawa, and aimed squarely at the Soviet bloc. It also positioned Japan in Chinese thinking as a ‘restrained’ former foe. The ‘cap in the bottle’ rationale for the US-Japan alliance was embedded in Chinese thinking from that time onwards.
And herein lies the problem: this rationale for Japan’s place in the US alliance system is now redundant. Indeed, redundancy permeates the geopolitical rendering of the Senkaku issue today.
This redundancy exists on several levels. First, Cold War containment policy lost its relevance with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite the ongoing problems associated with the North Korea (DPRK) in the post-Cold War era, the US has not simply transferred containment from the Soviet bloc to the DPRK. They are fundamentally different challenges, and the forces stationed on Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan have specific and targeted missions associated with the DPRK threat that are far removed from those related to containment.
Furthermore, the notion that in the 21st century the US has shifted containment logic and force posture to China lacks credibility. The US ‘rebalance’ is premised on enhanced engagement of China in the liberal international system, and it explicitly acknowledges China as a rising power that ought to actively be welcomed into, and integrated into, the councils of world politics, trade and security. Calling this containment is misleading.
Second, the development of technologies in the cyber and space domains, coupled with emerging concerns over the maritime domain, have transformed the strategic landscape in the 21st century. The transnational, borderless nature of threats emanating from these domains literally makes containment impossible. This threat spectrum is part of what informs the US ‘rebalance’ to the Indo–Pacific, particularly the security component, including wider dispersal of troops across the region, pre-positioning and preference for rotations over large permanent bases, and up-scaling the contributions of allies and partners. Taken together, these aspects will force a reconsideration of the role and status of Japan in the US alliance system, as well as a transformation of the San Francisco alliance system itself.
But this highlights another problem: this process is only in its infancy, and it is far from clear how this project of reimagining the alliance will unfold, and where it will lead. This is a transitional moment for the US and Japan, and for the region as a whole. But, it is premature to declare that this ‘cornerstone’ alliance has already been redeployed to contain a China threat.
Third, the Senkaku issue triggers what is very much a contemporary strategic concern, namely competition over scarce resources such as energy. While the existence of rich hydrocarbon deposits in the vicinity of the Senkaku islands is significant, it is more the maritime domain that sparks tension. Despite the clashes between China and Japan over the Senkaku sovereignty issue in recent years, both nations were able to strike an agreement in 2008 to engage in joint development of those resources at the maritime boundary between them (according to Japan). Spillover from politics to the economic dimension of the Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship is a very recent phenomenon; until now, China and Japan have promoted rationalism between them even as they simultaneously made emotive pitches to their respective domestic constituencies. This is why ‘hot economy, cold politics’ has been possible.
Of greater consequence are two related concerns: what the US and Japan perceive as China’s growing anti-access area-denial capabilities; and China’s desire to secure passage to the Pacific for their as yet underdeveloped blue water navy. Securing the so-called ‘global commons’ of air, space, maritime and cyber spheres is likely to be a formative rationale for the reimagined US-Japan alliance, and is a core preoccupation of security policy in the ‘rebalance’. This is where the Senkaku dispute acquires strategic prominence.
Tensions between Japan and China over the Senkakus have recently escalated, due to behavior on both sides that has changed the situation on the ground. This behaviour has demonstrated contempt for the status quo, and a mutual agreement not to acknowledge the existence of a problem for fear that they might both then be forced to resolve it.
Japan’s decision to arrest the captain of the Chinese fishing vessel involved in a collision with a Japan Coast Guard ship in September 2010, and Japan’s September 2012 decision to ‘nationalise’ three of the islands, were taken by China as a new stance on the sovereignty question. Similarly, China’s retaliation in the form of squeezing off exports of rare earth metals to Japan, and the weapons radar lock fixed on Japanese assets in January this year, have crossed boundaries that used to preserve the status quo. It remains to be seen whether Japan and Taiwan’s agreement over fishing rights in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the area will prompt another round of negative interactions between Japan and China.
All of this matters for many reasons. But, high on the list is the fact that contestation over these goat-infested rocks may trigger a challenge to the integrity of the US alliance system before the ‘rebalance’ even gets its strategic underpinning. If a limited skirmish over the Senkakus were to expose the reluctance of the US to come to the aid of an ally, as Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty mandates, then the security guarantees of the entire alliance system will be called into question. The last thing that the US wants to do is get involved in an armed conflict between China and Japan. The US has engaged in concerted behind-the-scenes diplomacy in recent years to encourage both sides to decompress, and engage once more in quiet, constructive diplomacy. As of May 2013, this seemed to be gaining some traction, with leadership changes in both Japan and China in recent months acting as circuit breakers.
In the 21st century, the geopolitics of unipolarity have been transcended by a recognition on the part of the region that multilateralism is an inevitable and necessary medium for meeting the challenges of the new era. Some people may call this counterbalancing against an assertive China, but calling it containment is invalid. The Senkaku issue represents a spatial and temporal link between old and new power configurations, in a world that is in strategic transition and in a region where this historic change is most pronounced.
At its core the Senkaku problem is a trilateral one, between Japan, China and the US. But it is also symbolic of a profound shift in the packaging and rationale of power, its projection and its institutionalisation. As such the hardy goats inhabiting those rocky outcrops in the East China Sea are bearing witness to history in the making.
Rikki Kersten is Professor at the Department of Political and Social Change in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
The full version of this article was published in the April 2013 issue of Asian Currents.