East China Sea Dispute Rocks Kerry’s Debut at State Department

Posted February 6th, 2013 at 1:32 am (UTC+0)

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 John Kerry, shown here at his Jan. 24, confirmation hearings in the Senate, faces his first major challenge on the job with the South China Sea dispute. Photo: AP

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.


A Japan Coast Guard patrol boat approaches a Chinese fishing vessel Feb. 22, 2013 southwest of the disputed islands group in the East China Sea. Photo: (AP Photo/Japan Coast Guard 11th Regional Headquarters)

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.”

19 responses to “East China Sea Dispute Rocks Kerry’s Debut at State Department”

  1. matt says:

    When two party’s cannot agree they have choices, they can fight, use a third party to decide who is correct, or agree to a sharing of resources.
    Why can China and Japan not point blank share the resources 50/50 a win for both sides. Think of the money and lives saved and future partnerships that would come from this.

    China & Japan could earn the worlds respect.

    • Kim says:

      You right matt: BUT will the chinese think that way??

      • matt says:

        With the right approach from Japan and other countries they will, but they cannot be seen to lose face. These Islands are only under Japanese admin. Maybe Taiwan should be the country to contest ownership and they could share with both countries. At some point in history nations will need to become peaceful partners or face poverty of honour and life.

  2. Chris says:

    The United Nations must scrutinize this matter delicately and decisively. They are the appropriate third party to decide on this kind of conflict. Above all things, the key word on this conflict is “RESPECT”. Each and every country should learn to practice this word.

  3. michael47 says:

    Historically, these islands and others located in the South China Sea (and various “seas”) in the area are in dispute based on which historical texts etc each nation believes. All history is interpretation.
    The real issue is economic, and has always been so. The value of the islands and sea is dubious except for transit and harbor. The real dispute is energy and minerals and their use for economic security, expansion, and sustainability.
    Therefore, the only solution besides war is a diplomatic solution via a fair division of the disputed resources. The strongest and richest economies will always demand the most
    and will provide the military for it, as will all other economies as they can.
    It is, and always has been, the same old war story. The human stupidity of it is clear in the destruction that prevails before the rebuilding that ensues. Depending on how cynical one is, of course, whether this is just another elliptical human death/growth cycle.

  4. joe hk says:

    If America truly intends to solve this issue, they should call for a meeting and trash it out with all parties, inlcuding Taiwan.
    Saying that they do not take sides and still under protection is confusing and totally biased and preposterous..
    The question America need to ask is who started this and why. Is there a hidden agenda here somewhere ??
    Why not question the Japanese of their intent? China has warned and informed Japan that they will not accept the buyout of those rocks and would want to keep the status quo. They have been told outright that if that happens, China will not keep silent and pretend nothing happened.
    Japan has chosen to ignore the warnings and thus the consequences. Blame China for the incursion and etc..you must be joking. How else do you think China should response? Tell us, Chinese and overseas Chinese the solution. Otherwise, do not pretend to be the broker or the neutral man and keep poking and bashing China.

  5. rafael says:

    A war between two Economic friends, is bad business for the United States.
    The U.S. – must be neutral on this and must play a key role of an arbiter and a peace negotiator, taking sides will escalate the situation and No-body wins this war…?
    The last thing that the World – needs is a War between two Nuclear Powers… Please, let us exhaust all Peaceful avenues, because once war starts, it is Very Hard – and difficult to End it… and Again No-body wins…

  6. Phoenician says:

    Chinese is becomming a Nazi-chinese nowaday. Its encourage young chinese to go on blog and talking about attacking other countries. Chinese military hackers keep hacking and attack US governments, US companies daily and event our news agencies. For the last decade US is losing a lot of intellectual inventions including our top secret millitary air planes and weapons design. It’s not that we fear the Chinese but if we silences to all of their activities; then we will be their victim soon or later. A large portion of our job lost deal to out sourcing and manuafactures move to that regions and we’re suffering because of it.

  7. Henry says:

    After suffering defeat during the sino-japanese war in 1895. As spoil of war, the Qing dynasty was forced to give up Taiwan and the island chains including Daiyutai/Daiyu/Senkakus. If Japan technically owns the island chains. Wouldn’t one argue that they technically own Taiwan as well? Sounds silly right?

    • david le says:

      Henry is wrong . When Japanese found out Senkaku island, no Chinese were there. Any way, communist China and Taiwan never objected to Japan’s owning Senkaku island until recently.

  8. Grin Olsson says:

    Secretary of State John Kerry is an excellent choice to represent our nation and national interests. It is obvious that the real power behind North Korea is China. It is not odd at all when China is acting belligerent towards the Philippines and Japan with full knowledge that Japan’s defenses are dictated by the surrender during World War two. They know an attack on Japan is nothing more than the use of a surrogate nation to attack the United States. And, at this very same time, with Russian jets showing their face, and North Korean nuclear threats – they all come in to play within their alliances. North Korea can bottle up South Korea and Japan while China takes on Japan and the Philippines from the Southern end of their “front”. I am quite confident that Mr. Kerry will balance a response and at the same time recognize that South Korea may very well have to entertain a preemptive strike against North Korea and the USA may very well have to confront China’s belligerence on a massive scale that can be concluded as a major war. …

  9. Joe marcucilli says:

    China has never been our ally, they have begun a cyber war against us and the devaluing of their currency and the pirating of intellectual property are not the acts of friendship.

  10. Paul Le says:

    we, americans have lost a lot of jobs. Why nobody pay attention to it?

    who is responsible ? businessmen, weak us government, …?

    A lot of technologies were illegally copied out, why nobody say about it, who is
    responsible ?

    And a lot more …and do we blame it to Red China?

  11. Scarborough says:

    China and its calculated assertiveness are central to both the East China Sea (Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islets) and South China Sea disputes, but the nature of the disputes is very different. In the East China Sea, history certainly has a place in disputing title though as in most things, actual control–by Japan, in this case–trumps all else unless a) the challenger wants to start a war, b) the occupier agrees to submit the dispute to an international tribunal, or, c) the countries agree to negotiate boundaries or resources sharing. None of these are likely in the current atmosphere of China’s sense of historical injury by Japan and the fact that the Japanese right is still smarting over Tokyo’s WWII defeat and humiliation.

    There can be no question that US sympathies have always favored Japan, a treaty ally, but there is no reason why the US can’t be officially neutral about the dispute–as it was when it handed Okinawa and the disputed islets and rocks back to Japan in 1982–while also honoring its security treaty with Japan. China cannot capture the islands without attacking Japanese ships and military aircraft, thereby creating a US obligation to respond in some way. The US must do all it can to promote peace and counsel restraint by both parties if for no other reason that Japan will invoke the treaty and the alliance will be gravely damaged if we don’t respond as the Japanese think we should. The only possible saving grace is that the highly capable naval and air forces of Japan are probably viewed in Beijing as a reason not to initiate an attack, but the danger that an incident could escalate out of control is a real one.

    The problem is much different in the South China Sea where China is asserting control of some 90 percent of the maritime area–including deep penetrations into the rightful 200 n. mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of four littoral neighbors (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam) and claiming all of the Sea’s island chains, rocks, reefs, shoals and banks via a “nine dashed line” and historical claims that have no legitimate basis under prevailing (or traditional) international maritime law as codified in the 1982bUN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China is also asserting–and using dangerous maneuvers at sea to do so–the right to interfere with the actions of US military vessels on the high seas, which is also clearly in conflict with international maritime law. That China has ratified UNCLOS but cherry-picks what provisions it chooses to follow while at least four US administrations have supported the terms despite the refusal of a handful of Senators to allow a vote on the Treaty is one of those “go figure” situations that have become all too familiar to Americans.

  12. […] East China Sea Dispute Rocks Kerry’s Debut at State Department […]

  13. Luciano Fajardo says:

    China is acting like Germany before WW2. The people are being brainwashed that they can conquer all small countries around the east and south China areas. The US should warn China that war mongering is out now that the world is in the 21st century. Disputes are not solved by war anymore. Weapons of mass destruction, if used, will make the would-be winner a sour loser. Civilization would be back to stone age again. China will make the world uninhabitable. We should warn China that the economic prosperity they are now enjoying will be l00 times more devastated than that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. China is a sick society. Communist Russia is their mentor and builder but now defunct…and China is still following Communist doctrine even though their mother Russia is not communist anymore. China must wake up and be a nation of peace.

  14. One hopes that every nation’s leaders will pay heed to The Cato Institute warnings.

  15. I welcome each initiative that tries to form a better world through renewable energy. This is a great initiative. Folks ought to be made aware that the energy they consume everyday is harming the globe and the proper way ahead is opting for renewable energy.

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns is VOA’s State Department correspondent. He has worked as VOA’s Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.



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