President Obama, who is in Japan today, has announced that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan applies to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan and China are in dispute over who has sovereignty over the largely uninhabited island chain in the East China Sea, but Obama’s statement, simultaneously meant to reassure Tokyo and threaten Beijing, made clear that the U.S. will go to war against China if the territorial dispute erupts into conflict.
Ankit Panda at The Diplomat:
In an interview ahead of his trip with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, Obama said that the United States regards the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as falling under the purview of the U.S.-Japan security treaty and that the United States would oppose any attempt to undermine Japan’s control of the islands. “The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands,” Obama stated in the Yomiuri Shimbun.
The statement naturally drew protest from the Chinese foreign ministry. ”The so-called US-Japan alliance is a bilateral arrangement from the Cold War and ought not to harm China’s territorial sovereignty and reasonable rights,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang noted. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are disputed by China and Japan, both of whom regard the entirety of the islands and their surrounding waters as their sovereign territory. In 2012, Japan purchased some of the islands from a private owner, effectively nationalizing them. Since then, the dispute has been a major feature of relations between China and Japan.
Throughout a range of U.S. foreign policy issues, references to Chamberlain’s 1938 appeasement to Hitler at Munich are ubiquitous. Wherever the U.S. chooses diplomacy or neutrality over threats and military action, you have hawks screaming “Munich!” in an attempt to argue that “weakness” invites world war.
But what about the lessons of the First World War? A perilous system of alliances and defense treaties helped plummet Europe into one of the most bloody conflicts in human history. A relatively petty and localized issue, like an Austrian archduke getting assassinated by a Serbian anarchist, triggered Germany’s involvement in hostilities against Serbia, which triggered Russia’s involvement which triggered France and Britain’s involvement, and the rest is history.
Surely, if hawks are just trying to stave off devastating conflicts, they should be warning against reckless entangling alliances just as much as they warn against “appeasement.”
China and Japan have been patrolling the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in deliberately provocative ways to demonstrate their sovereignty over the territory. This could easily result in a minor clash that would trigger an explosion out of all proportion to the actual dispute.
“My biggest fear is that a small mishap is going to blow up into something much bigger,” says Elizabeth C. Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“If there is a use of force between Japan and China,” warns Sheila A. Smith, also of CFR, “this could be all-out conflict between these two Asian giants. And as a treaty ally of Japan, it will automatically involve the United States.”
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are not a vital U.S. interest. The dispute over them between Japan and China has nothing to do with Americans. But Obama just promised the world he’ll go to war over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea, if he has to.