Senkaku. Where and What is That?

Senkaku. Where and What is That?
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TOKYO – It is fair to assume that Donald Trump, like millions of Americans, has never heard of the Senkaku islands, a small group of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China. There is no reason why he should. As a businessman, he would not have considered them to be prime locations for a luxury hotel or golf course. 

Thus it might come to him as a considerable surprise to learn that the islands are at the center of a major dispute between China and Japan and that previous administrations have pledged American treasure and, if need be, American blood to defend these islands should the Chinese move to occupy them.

This year, Beijing has become more aggressive in asserting its ownership of the islands, just as it has upped its claims in the South China Sea. Two weeks ago the Chinese Coast Guard intruded into Japanese controlled waters. That was not so unusual. Beijing has been sending vessels into Senkaku waters on average once every two weeks for the past two years, 31 occasions this year.

What was unusual was that four coast guard cutters intruded on Japanese waters. Beijing is not just sending solitary vessels into Senkaku waters anymore; it is dispatching whole flotillas. It shows that China’s crash program to build coast guard vessels, something I’ve called a coast guard arms race, is bearing fruit.

Beijing now has the resources to dispatch coast guard vessels to all corners of the East and South China Seas, from the Senkaku in the north to the Natuna waters to the south where the Chinese coast guard vessels have clashed with Indonesia. And they can do this simultaneously. 

As the Senkaku dispute escalated, Tokyo sought assurances from Washington that its promise to defend Japan under the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Security applied to the islands even though the U.S. does not formally acknowledge Japan’s sovereignty over them.

In 2010 then secretary of state Hillary Clinton told her Japanese counterpart, Seiji Maehara, that the treaty did in fact cover the Senkaku.  Her position was affirmed by her successor John Kerry who said that Article 5 of the treaty obligated the U.S. to come to the defense of “territories under the administration of Japan.”

All well and good, but Tokyo was eager to have the American president himself make his country’s position clear. In his 2014 visit to Japan President Barack Obama did that saying, “Historically they have been administered by Japan, and we do not believe that they should be subjected to change unilaterally.”

Enter Donald Trump. The president-elect has not fleshed out his foreign policy objectives in Asia, much less on the Eat China Sea dispute. But if he is wobbly on America defending, say, Estonia, a firm NATO ally, how much more wobbly would he be on defending the Senkaku?

The leaders in Beijing have no doubt begun to take the measure of the new American president and quite possibly have concluded that they now have a much freer hand to assert their prerogatives up to and including possible Chinese occupation, which could spark a war with Japan.

The Senkaku were turned over to Japan as part of the 1972 settlement that returned Okinawa and the other Ryukyu islands. Washington recognized Japanese sovereignty over all of these islands – save one. It made a distinction between “sovereignty” for the other islands and “administrative control” for the Senkaku

The distinction was probably meant to appease Taiwan, which was soon to be derecognized as a legitimate state. Taipei has its own claim to the Senkaku, although it does not press its case as strongly as Beijing.

Thus the U.S. is in the awkward position of committing itself to defend a bunch of uninhabited islands even though it does not officially recognize them as sovereign Japanese territory. Tokyo was happy to get the U.S. position on the record as a matter of law and treaty obligations.

But it must still wonder if Washington would really come to its defense if it meant fighting a nuclear-armed China over possession of islands that not one American in ten million has ever heard of, and Washington doesn’t even recognize as part of Japan. That anxiety level will increase 100-fold under a president Trump.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War Between China and Japan, published as an Amazon Kindle Single.

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