May 28, 2013

The U.S. Role in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute

As part of our effort to highlight the work of Anderson students and alumni, the author has agreed to share the following piece from an assignment on American foreign policy. In this piece from last fall, recent graduate Ryan Daugherty argues for the U.S. to take a moderate stance towards the island dispute between China and Japan.


The U.S. Role in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute

Ryan Daugherty

The United States is in a very similar role that the United Kingdom was in over a hundred years ago. In this time, the UK saw its power overall falling and the rising powers of the United States and Germany. The UK went two different routes in how it accommodated the rise of new powers while it was still the overall dominant power. With the United States, the UK embraced and worked with the United States to behave as a world power should and the US over time took over many of the same roles that the United Kingdom had previously played. With Germany it was a different story. The UK and allies such as France tried to block and stymie the rise of Germany and this eventually led to the two World Wars. In a sense this is the role the United States is in now. While the United States is now an overall declining power but is losing relative power because of the rise of many other nations, it must find a way to accommodate the rise of many new powers to the world stage and China is the most important of those rising powers.

The US must encourage and incentivize the Chinese to participate in the world order in to maintain smooth relations for the region in the world. At the same time the United States is also taking steps to bolster allies in the region such as South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and others by reaffirming our commitment to the region and to them. This should send a message to China that if it does want to try and bully the rest of the region that the United States will bolster its allies. This should give incentive to China to cooperate and take a more responsible role as it becomes the more dominant power in Asia.

Recently, we have seen tensions rise in South Asia over a few small islands that at first glance don’t hold much value to anyone. In spite of this, relations between China and Japan have been at their lowest since World War II .

The most recent point of contention between these two regional powers has been the dispute over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, the Japanese and Chinese names respectively. These islands lay south of Japan, northeast of Taiwan, and east of Mainland China. All three have made claims to the islands but Japan is the one that has had control of them for most of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Japan held sovereignty over them until the founding of the United Nations in the 1940’s and regained sovereignty over them in 1971. It was here that it was passed on to a family that had previously owned them in the 19th century. Shortly after Japan regained sovereignty of the islands in the 1970’s, China made a claim on them and so did Taiwan. Both nations made the claim for historical reasons but there was also the discovery of potential oil reserves in the same time as the claims by both China and Taiwan. It has been since this time that the United States has played the role of mediator between these two Asian powers and will have to continue to do so in the future because of past and recent events.

China and Japan have had incidents similar to the one that we have witnessed recently but nothing to this magnitude. In 2010, there was the incident of a Japanese coast guard ship capturing a Chinese ship captain but this incident was able to pass over very quickly without incident. The most recent flare up in Chinese-Japanese relations has been over the announcement by the Japanese to buy three of the Senkaku Islands from the family that privately owns them. This announcement has stirred up nationalist sentiment because this announcement came around the same time of the anniversary of Japanese actions in Manchuria before the Second World War. This has led to widespread demonstrations throughout China. Japanese companies such as Honda have had to cease production temporarily because of the protests and Japanese nationals that live in China were told to hang low and not to head out because of the protest and the fear of harm that would come to them. In the past week since these protest things have been cooling down in part due to the Chinese government trying to settle down tensions although they had helped to stir tensions in the first place through the media and other sources such as education.

Going forward the United States has a real challenge in trying to be a broker between China and Japan. The United States has a very close relationship with Japan. Since World War II, Japan has been one of the closest allies of the United States. This has been solidified in agreement through the U.S-Japan Security Treaty that was signed in 1960. Even with this treaty though, the United States has not taken an official position on the issue of Senkaku/ Diaoyu and will not do so for the foreseeable future because there is also China to keep happy.

The United States is still in the process of “pivoting” to Asia because of its geopolitical importance in the 21st century and China is major reason for that.  It is a fine line to walk for the United States because the American administration does not want to anger the Chinese but also cannot be seen from neglecting its ally in Japan. If China becomes angry then it’s makes agreement on numerous other issues much more problematic but if Japan feels that the Americans are neglecting them then it not only upsets the Japanese and builds distrust between the two nations but it also sends a negative message to the United States’ other allies in the region that the United States will not stand up to China and will not be there to help them if that would be needed. It seems for now the course that the United States is taking is the best route. The Obama Administration should urge restraint on both sides and to push both sides to begin the process of deciding how the islands should be divided between the two nations or who is going to have sovereignty over them.  The route of neutrality on the issue that the United States has taken so far has been the best route and should continue the maintaining its neutrality because the US cannot afford to get bogged down in a conflict that can very easily be avoided. Thus the US must play the role of honest broker in order to keep peace in the region. If this is not done by the US then it can lead to not necessarily conflict between China and Japan but to economic standoff or destabilization that would be felt worldwide.

Another question that comes from this incident has to do with China. What does China want or expect to gain from its actions in this situation? While Japan does hold just as much responsibility from the flare up in this region, China’s behavior for the United States has to be more interesting and concerning. The talk for years has been about the rise of China as a replacement for the United States as the world’s dominant power. While this is mostly just over hyped talk, the real concern for the United States has to be the rise of China in the East Asia region and trying to become the regional hegemon. The Chinese in recent years and even weeks have shown increased aggression towards the United States and its neighbors in the region. Just looking at the headlines from recent events shows that China wants to project more power in the region. China just recently launched its first aircraft carrier. While this is a refurbished one that was bought from Ukraine, is from the Soviet era, and China still does not have planes that can land on it or take off from it, it is still a sign of growing power from China. Also with the recent incident with the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, China has sent ships into the island region to keep an eye on the Japanese. While it is understandable that China feels a legitimate claim to the islands, it must also behave as a responsible power if it is to be respected by its neighbors and by the international community at large. This is where the United States can play a major role in the region. The United States must find a way to engage China in order to get the Chinese to play by the rules that have been set up for a functioning international community. The Chinese leadership above all else craves stability in the region for economic growth and the United States must show the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party that by participating in the world community that stability can be achieved.

While the Senkaku/Diaoyu incident is dying down, it will be curious to see how the China will behave in the future. This is why the United States should be prepared to meet the challenge of China. On one hand it should being trying to engage China and encouraging it to behave as a regional power in Asia but on the other it is taking the right steps to have a challenge to China if China tries to become the undisputed hegemon in the region and bully other nations. This challenge of China is perhaps the biggest challenge that the United States faces as the 21st Century unfolds.

Ryan Daugherty graduated from Anderson this spring with his B.A. in Political Science-Economics. He is beginning graduate work in political science this fall at the University of Kansas with an emphasis in comparative politics. He has research interests in Latin American politics, and the relationship between public policy and inequality from a cross-national perspective.

*This paper was completed as part of an academic exercise and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Anderson University, the University of Kansas, or the author’s past, present, or future employers.

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