NEW DELHI – At a time of shifting power dynamics in Asia, Japan faces pressing security challenges. Of the 400 remote islands that serve as markers for determining Japan’s territorial waters, only about 50 are inhabited. But no group of islands poses a bigger challenge for its security than the Senkakus, a clutch of five uninhabited islets and three rocks.
This challenge is compounded by demographic and military trends. Japan has barely one-tenth the population of China’s. Moreover, its population is not just aging but also shrinking significantly; it declined by nearly a million just between 2010 and 2015.
About a decade ago, Japan’s defense budget was larger than China’s. But now China’s military spending surpasses the combined defense budgets of Japan, Britain and France.
To make matters worse, China’s increasing territorial assertiveness and muscular foreign policy are contributing to a sense of insecurity in Japan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping declared much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, to be a Chinese air defense zone in 2013, and since then China has stepped up its challenge to Japan’s control over those islands, including through repeated intrusions by its military aircraft and warships. Beijing has hardened its stance by elevating its claim to the Senkakus to a “core interest,” while some in China have gone to the extent of questioning Japan’s sovereignty over even Okinawa.
Against this background, many Japanese have wondered whether the United States would come to Japan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack on the Senkakus. The 1960 U.S.-Japan security treaty states that an armed attack on either party in the territories under Japan’s administration would prompt joint action “to meet the common danger.”
Then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s contradictory rhetoric instilled a sense of skepticism in Japan. Obama said the U.S. security treaty with Japan covered the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.” At his April 2014 joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Obama, while unveiling his position on the Senkakus, urged Japan to refrain from “provocative actions” and emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise.” How could such double-speak reassure Japan? Such statements sowed doubt whether the U.S. would be willing to go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights in the event of a surprise Chinese invasion of the Senkakus. The Obama administration responded by simply saying that “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.”
Add to the picture Obama’s conspicuous inaction and silence on China’s 2012 seizure of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, despite America’s long-standing mutual defense treaty with Manila. That development served as a wake-up call for Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia.
By contrast, the new U.S. administration led by President Donald Trump has taken a more clear-cut stance in reassuring Japan that the U.S. would defend it in any confrontation with China over the Senkakus. It has done so without the Obama-style caveat — that Washington does not take sides in the sovereignty dispute and calls on China and Japan to resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue. In fact, the recent Trump-Abe summit marked the first time that the U.S. commitment to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus was recorded in a joint statement.
The Feb. 12 Trump-Abe joint statement came out strongly for the Senkakus’ defense: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands. … The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.”
This unambiguous commitment should be seen as an important success of Abe’s proactive diplomacy in seeking to build a personal connection with the new U.S. president. Abe was the first foreign leader Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago, which he calls “the southern White House.” Earlier, just after Trump’s unexpected election victory, Abe met face to face with him by making a special stop in New York en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.
Let’s be clear: The Senkaku issue is not just about a 7-sq.-km piece of real estate or the potential oil and gas reserves that lie around it. The strategically located Senkakus, despite their small size, are critical to maritime security and the larger contest for influence in the East China Sea and beyond.
China is seeking to wage a campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus by gradually increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into Japan’s airspace and territorial waters. In doing so, it has made the rest of the world recognize the existence of a dispute and the risks of armed conflict.
To be sure, changing the territorial status quo is nothing new for Beijing. China has been doing that ever since it was founded in 1949. The early forcible absorption of the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan Plateau more than doubled China’s landmass.
In the 21st century, Chinese expansionism has increasingly relied upon “salami tactics” — a steady progression of small, furtive actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which help to incrementally change facts on the ground in China’s favor.
Unlike China’s success in expanding its frontiers in the South China Sea, it has found the going tough in the East China Sea. Indeed, Beijing’s actions have shaken Tokyo out of its complacency and diffidence and set in motion the strengthening of Japan’s defense capabilities, including arming its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea with a string of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries.
At his joint news conference with Trump at the White House, Abe pledged that Japan will play a “greater role” in East Asian security. It was as if he was responding to Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Japan, which hosts about 50,000 American troops, should do more to defend itself.
One effective way the Trump administration can encourage Japan to do more for its own defense is by lending full support to the Abe-initiated national security and constitutional reform process. Such reforms could help forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Japan is already working to constrain China with its own version of Beijing’s “anti-access, area denial” doctrine against the U.S.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.