The territorial conflict over the disputed islands of the Senkaku archipelago (called the Diaoyu Islands by China) in the East China Sea is gaining momentum. Many analysts believe that Washington has recently begun exploiting it more intensely in order both to maintain a constant balance between two key forces in the region of benefit to the United States and to retain a dominant role in the Pacific Ocean.
During World War II, Washington supported China in its fight against imperialist Japan. US sympathies are different today; its main efforts are directed at the military revival of Japan, which is capable of restraining an increasingly powerful China. No matter what happened between China and Japan, however, the invisible shadow of a United States devoted to the ancient Roman strategy of “divide and conquer” will always loom over them.
On April 23, eight Chinese navy patrol craft entered the waters of the Senkaku archipelago. The Japanese Coast Guard radioed a demand that they immediately depart the country’s territorial waters, but they took no action against the Chinese vessels.
This year, Chinese naval vessels visited the coastal waters of the Senkakus on April 30, February 24, March 4, April 9, as well as on other occasions. Unless prevented by the weather, Chinese vessels appeared in the waters off the Senkakus virtually every day between September 11 and December 15 of last year. Beijing recently said it would establish a base for reconnaissance drones on the mainland China’s east coast by 2015 to perform surveillance missions over the islands. The drones will monitor the waters around the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands in the East China Sea and Huangyan Island in the South China Sea.
The Japanese government has decided to form a special detachment to defend the archipelago. The new detachment will include an aviation unit and 20 patrol vessels. This number will be increased by another 12 by the 2015 fiscal year. That is Tokyo’s official position.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed the position of Washington — Japan’s foreign policy patron— very clearly not long ago: The United States opposes “any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” over the Senkaku Islands.” Translated from diplomatic speak, that means: “Stop what you’re doing, or you’ll regret it.”
Qin Gang, the director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, gave Beijing’s response to Ms. Clinton’s statement by attempting to appeal to the conscience of US leaders: “The US has unshirkable historical responsibility on the Diaoyu Islands issue.” This naïve appeal went unheard because Washington by and large gives little thought to its “responsibilities,” much less to its historic responsibilities. In 1945, President Truman sanctioned the use of nuclear bombs against Japan, and what happened? Japan is now the United States’ most loyal ally.
The hydrocarbon deposits discovered there back in 1968 are usually cited as a backdrop to the feud between Japan and China over the ill-fated archipelago. In reality, things are not that simple. The reasons probably are not purely economic but lie more in the realm of political games.
Japan does not participate in global politics. Washington not long ago assigned it the same role that China has, specifically that of being an industrial appendage of the United States. Production units of Japanese corporations are currently relocating to China. It was no coincidence that when the conflict over the Senkakus heated up last fall, China’s first act was to apply economic pressure.
On September 11, 2012, China responded to Japan’s decision to buy the islands from their private owners by dispatching two warships to “protect their sovereignty.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry explained that there could be “serious consequences” unless Japan cancels the purchase. Massive anti-Japanese riots that caused work stoppages at factories belonging to Japanese countries began in China then and there.
Alas, Japan is a country with a declining population, facing a future with no industry and no means of support. Its economic problems cannot be solved by default, but rather by demographics — with a complete ban on contraception. Despite that, Japan’s defense budget in 2012 was $56 billion, almost on a par with the defense budgets of France and the UK. If the European Union is taken as a single state, Japanese defense spending would rank fourth in the world in terms of militarist ambitions. The Land of the Rising Son has the same problems as the “Land of Model Democracy,” i.e., a huge budget deficit and bloated military spending. The difference is that the US population is growing and Japan’s is declining.
Japan is growing weaker. That is a fact. Nowadays, not even a US protectorate is guaranteed a sunny future.
The main thing Beijing wants from Washington is that it not interfere in the Chinese-Japanese conflict. Meanwhile, the United States and Japan are linked by a mutual defense treaty. If Washington were to abandon it, it would forfeit all claims to hegemony in East Asia and relinquish military-political leadership there to China despite the fact that East Asia economically is the most promising region in the world, especially for the United States.
As we know, the Obama administration has declared a Return to Asia policy. More precisely, it has committed itself to strengthening its military-political presence there. Washington’s current diplomatic efforts in Asia are aimed at forming a broad-based alliance against China that would include Australia, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and others. Japan, of course, would have a special role to play in this “volunteer corps” created by the White House — namely that of a faithful squire, assault advance guard and ally that could be sacrificed without a qualm.
Naturally, the US desire to impose “democracy” on yet another country, this time China, cannot escape Beijing’s attention.
Neither China nor the United States can afford a direct confrontation at this point in time. China is not yet strong enough, and the United States is too dependent on Chinese exports since it is no longer the industrial center of the world. Since Beijing needs to react in some fashion to Washington’s aspirations, Chinese Communist Party leaders are using attacks against Tokyo as the most effective method of doing so.
Thus, Beijing is clearly hinting to Japan that the United States is a mighty power, which, if problems arise (and it is having more and more of them), will sit them out on the other side of the ocean shielded by its missile defense system and its Minuteman 3 ICBMs. Then, Japan could find itself face-to-face with an angry Chinese giant.
Taiwan, which previously had been an active player on the White House team, seems to have taken the hint and made its own claims for the Senkakus just in case, even engaging in a water cannon duel with Japanese patrol boats. It is more advantageous for Taiwan to demonstrate its independence from US policy. It is still a “second China.” Everyone in Japan remembers Hiroshima and knows who designed the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant. The Japanese do not need to have American imperialism explained to them. They fear the United States more than China, and that is the icing on the East Asian political cake.
Beijing’s objective with regards to Japan is to intimidate it, if not more than Washington, then at least enough to get it to recall its past expansionist achievements in China, Korea and Southeast Asia.
Beijing is currently showing that it has the initiative in relations with Japan, that it is powerful and dynamic, and that it will not allow something like the Nanjing Massacre to happen again. Since East Asian politics involve a combination of whining and unbridled arrogance, the exercise of power by China and Japan together with complaints about the trampling of rights to the Senkakus generate intense interest among their neighbors in the region, which are prepared to advance their own territorial claims. However, Washington’s possible future actions elicit even greater interest, especially since US forces are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, and the United States is unaccustomed to doing nothing and is always willing to start a new war, especially one far distant from its shores.
Konstantin Alexandrovich Penzev is an author and historian and a columnist for New Eastern Outlook.