Defending the Senkakus
U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis visited Japan on February 3 and 4 via South Korea where he met with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Minister of Defense Inada Tomomi. Inada and Mattis subsequently held talks the next day at the Defense Ministry, where they also gave a press conference following their session together.
The visit itself was meant to be a strong message to Japan and the region that the new Donald J. Trump Administration takes Asia, and especially its relationship with Japan, seriously. In particular, comments made by Mattis during his visit and echoed by Inada included the fact that the two countries view the actions and behavior by North Korea, particularly in the area of nuclear weapons development and ballistic missile technology, and China, particularly in the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea, as risky and dangerous.
In China’s case, it is especially its efforts to overturn the status quo with regard to the Senkaku Islands in its favor that has had Japan worried, belatedly, for the past two decades. (I write “belatedly” here as this has been a serious issue for almost fifty years, but Japan has done little to strengthen its diplomatic or military position with regard to the Senkaku Islands, which are under its administrative control.)
As such, Japan regularly asks officials from the U.S. government to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to help defend the islands from potential aggression. It has become so important for Japan to gain this pledge each and every time that after Mattis, who served in Okinawa in the early 1970s as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 3d Marine Division, met with Abe, NHK did a special report that Mattis confirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty does indeed apply to the Senkakus.
Every time I see these types of exchanges—and it was reported that the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, also told Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio during a telephone conversation on the 7th that the treaty covered the Senkakus and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo secured a similar pledge from President Trump during their summit on February 10-11th—reflected for the first time ever in a joint statement—I get disappointed on the one hand, and embarrassed for Japan, on the other. For one thing, these requests for this confirmation reflect not the strength of the alliance but actually its weaknesses by highlighting the lack of trust Japan has in the word of the American government. For another, these requests appear almost desperate.
It is both wrong and sad for one simple reason: the U.S. government committed to the defense of the Senkakus under Article 5 at the time of the deliberations in the U.S. Senate on the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, in the fall of 1971. Simply put, the Senkakus, as part of the area returned to Japan as a result of the agreement, fell within the scope of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States of America and Japan. (For details see my book, The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute: Okinawa’s Reversion and the Senkaku Islands, Routledge, 2014).
The commitment, therefore, has long existed, a fact Japan should know. The real question, however, is not whether the United States will help defend the Senkakus as per Article 5 (which reads in part: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”) but whether Japan will defend its territory, and can it? The answer to these two questions is in itself a big question.
I have long argued that there is much Japan needs to do in the area of enhancing its administrative control over the islands and ability to defend them.
This is particularly important as an Article 5 scenario is an easy one. Namely, were China to launch a military attack on the island, Article 5 would kick in, as even if China refutes Japan’s ownership of the islands, and the U.S. government takes a neutral stance on the claims of Japan, China, and Taiwan (which was the focus of my book), the U.S. government nevertheless recognizes that the islands fall under Japan’s administrative control.
It is the non-Article 5 type of scenarios that Japan, which has done very little to strengthen its position, will struggle. These include a clash at sea (where Japan is blamed for the “unwarranted attack”), or some sort of non-military advance on the islands through fishermen or activists, armed or otherwise, who land in masses on any one or all of the islands making up the Senkaku group, or some other means of infringing on Japan’s administration. In these cases, Article 5 does not apply.
Japan has wasted almost 45 years in this regard since Okinawa Prefecture was reverted to Japan on May 15, 1972. If Japan does not take action administratively now, it will eventually have to take actions militarily, and the costs involved will necessarily escalate if it comes to an actual conflict between Japan and China.
The administrative actions Japan can take now to further demonstrate its control as well as to provide a public good for its citizens and the region as a whole include constructing a lighthouse and communication facilities, deploying government personnel to the island, constructing a heliport, and the development of a port to be used by local fisherman and others who need a safe harbor during storms.
In the end, it is not the U.S. guarantee that is important but Japan’s own efforts.
An equally important resolution to the issue will be for Japan to place pressure on the United States to recognize Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which it previously did. The United States, which controlled Okinawa from 1945-1972, recognized Japan’s “residual sovereignty” as a part of the peace treaty, which went into effect in 1952. This means that if Japan had sovereignty over Okinawa, and the Senkakus were part of Okinawa, then Japan had sovereignty over the Senkakus, and the U.S. government’s choosing not to recognize it at the time of the 1971 reversion treaty indefensibly went against its own policies. Japan should point out that America’s vagueness—what I call “neutrality”—is the primary cause for the friction over the issue and request the United States, its ally, to fix its policy. This is in the interest of both countries, which would also need to address the concerns of Taiwan, which also claims the islands. The Japanese and U.S. governments could decide together to recognize Taiwan as a nation and nominate President Tsai Ing-wen for a Nobel Peace Prize if she agrees to unilaterally give up Taiwan’s admittedly weak claims. The timing is getting better for this approach in light of increased contacts between Trump and Taiwan. But this diplomatic solution is the subject of another essay.