U.S. Trying to Preserve Status Quo, China Objects
John Kerry is in his first week as America’s top diplomat and already he has a problem – the East China Sea where Chinese frigates are locking on to Japanese naval and air force patrols with weapons-fire-control radar.
“Actions such as this escalate tensions and increase the risk of an incident or a miscalculation,” says State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “and they could undermine peace, stability, and economic growth in this vital region.”
The possibility of vast oil deposits in the disputed area west of Okinawa have helped fuel the hostility over a group of tiny islands in the region, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Secretary of State Kerry has already spoken separately with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi about the dispute. He hopes to contain the flare so that China can play “a much more significant role as a partner in any number of efforts globally.”
“We will be competitors in the economic marketplace, but we shouldn’t be viewed as adversaries in some way that diminishes our ability to cooperate,” Kerry says. “China is the other significant economy in the world and obviously has a voracious appetite for resources around the world, and we need to establish rules of the road that work for everybody.”
At the start of his second term, President Barack Obama also needs China to keep cooperating with the U.S. On issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea and Syria.
But it’s precisely these other global efforts that will suffer, says Chu Shulong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University. He says Beijing sees Washington’s position on the East China Sea dispute as “America increasingly standing with the other sides against China.”
Then comes North Korea
And that, he says, is making it harder for Beijing to help out Washington when it comes to North Korea.
Successive U.S. governments have said Washington’s only stake in the Senkaku/Diaoyu standoff is keeping the peace. But it’s this status quo to which Beijing objects. It says Washington’s transfer of administration over the area to Tokyo in 1971 puts the Obama administration front and center in this dispute.
Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, says the American position “has been confusing and unhelpful.” He says the U.S. Claim of not taking a position on whether the islands are Japanese or Chinese comes as it insists that the islands are covered by a treaty with Japan.
“You’ve got really white-hot nationalism burning, I would say, to a greater extent in China and to a somewhat lesser extent in Japan,” Logan says. “So it’s not just a case that this is a sort of a realist, get-the-map-out, secure-your-sea lines sort of dispute.”
“There are real burning historical beliefs at stake here. But there also is a fairly straightforward military issue about whose boats get to go where,” he adds.
At the Center for American Progress think tank, senior fellow Nina Hachigian says Kerry “would be wise to devote considerable energy to determining how the United States can help diffuse” an increasingly dangerous situation.
“The United States and China have no shared vision for what their future bilateral relationship could or should look like,” she says. “They have not articulated a clear understanding of how they could continue to co-exist in peace a decade or two down the road, and they need to develop a shared, tangible idea for the future of the relationship.”
“Without a credible alternative,” Hachigian says, “the default prediction for the interaction between a rising power such as China and an established power such as the United States is based on what has come before: inevitable violent conflict.”
Gilbert Rozman, Northeast Asia sociology professor at Princeton University, says Chinese aggression in the East China Sea is part of a more assertive foreign policy.
Picking a fight?
“It’s China that’s picking a fight,” Rozman says, adding that Beijing “wanted the fight as part of the overall change in identity and aggressiveness that’s been going on for a few years and now is likely to be accelerated by the new leadership of Xi Jinping.
“And that’s why I’m really disturbed about how to resolve these issues because I think China prefers to have the conflict than to go back to something like the old status quo,” Rozman says.
At Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, professor Ren Xiao says Japan’s refusal to recognize the territorial dispute blocks any way out of it.
“The item high on the agenda is not who possesses sovereignty but rather what efforts they should make to soften the tension and prevent any military conflict. Washington has a responsibility to urge Tokyo to do so,” Ren says. “Erecting a protectionist umbrella is not favorable to getting beyond this crisis.”
Amid the recriminations, the Cato Institute’s Justin Logan says it’s “unnerving that you do hear both Chinese and Japanese sound an awful lot like they would fight a war with one and other over what — compared to the prospective costs of a shooting war — are worthless rocks.”
“People need to look very clearly into the abyss that is a shooting war between China and Japan, potentially with the United States roping itself in,” he says. “This is a very, very bad scenario.”
“So whatever people’s historical sensibilities, romantic ideas, or military aspirations may be,” says Logan, “they really need to square up to the costs and benefits of where the policies are headed.”