President-elect reaffirms core element of alliance . . .
Tokyo is breathing a small sigh of relief this week after U.S. President-elect Joe Biden underscored his commitment to the U.S.-Japan security treaty. Speaking with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden affirmed support for Article 5, whereby the U.S. will defend Japan if any Japanese-administered territory is attacked. Article 5 has taken on heightened importance as Chinese presence in waters surrounding the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands has reached an all-time high. China claims sovereignty over the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. Last week, Beijing released draft legislation that would allow its Coast Guard to use handheld weapons against foreign ships conducting illegal activity in Chinese territory in the name of protecting its marine resources and fishing boats. The legislation’s language is broad, although it mentions the need to protect “strategic islands.”
Emotionally charged issue . . .
The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is among the most flammable issues in the Japan-China relationship. Both sides are resolute in claims to the islands, constructed from competing legal interpretations and historical evidence dating back to the late 1800s. For much of this history, the dispute was not a major flashpoint. However, in recent decades, a series of provocative statements and actions on both sides has made it a high-profile, emotionally-charged issue. Public sentiment in both countries would make it challenging for either leader to back down in the event of a full-blown crisis.
Vulnerable to unintended escalation . . .
Invocation of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty is something the U.S., Japan, and China want to avoid. On the plus side, the President-elect is viewed as someone with a steady hand and extensive foreign policy experience. But he is inheriting a U.S.-China relationship that has deteriorated sharply and will be dealing with a China that is more internationally assertive than at any time in recent history. Regardless, experts believe any conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands will not be caused by directives from leaders, but rather as a result of an escalation following an accidental skirmish. It would be in all three leaders’ interests to use the change in U.S. leadership as an opportunity to lower the temperature around this issue.
- Council on Foreign Relations: Timeline: China’s maritime disputes
- The Japan Times: Suga says he’s got Biden’s backing on Senkakus in first phone talks
- Nikkei Asia: China’s coast guard allowed to fire on foreign ships under new law