Raising the Senkaku stakes?


Special To The Japan Times

One question typically receives little attention in connection with the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands. That question is, what’s in it for the parties involved?

To the extent this question is asked, China is accused of pursuing an aggressive if not expansionist military policy abroad while invoking nationalism at home to deflect criticism of its one-party Communist rule. And, of course, reference is made to China’s voracious appetite for the energy resources thought to lie beneath the ocean floor adjacent to the islands.

Yet, what about Japan, might it also harbor hidden motives?

For example, there is the question of the timing of this dispute, i.e., why now? This question is particularly relevant in light of the fact that in the years following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Japan and China in 1972, the two countries had what has been described as a “gentlemen’s agreement” to shelve the dispute over the Senkakus for future generations to resolve.

Accordingly, when seven Chinese landed in the Senkakus in 2004, the Koizumi administration simply deported them, thereby ending the incident without further repercussions. However, in 2010, following the Japanese Coast Guard’s arrest of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler on Sept. 7, the DPJ government under Prime Minister Naoto Kan had the Chinese captain’s case sent to the public prosecutors for investigation and possible trial.

Why did the DPJ government, insisting there was no dispute over the Senkakus, break this long-standing gentlemen’s agreement to pursue the possibility of prosecuting the Chinese boat captain, although he was eventually released without being indicted? And, of course, the nationalization of three of the Senkaku Islands appeared to China as a further attempt on the part of Japan to strengthen its control of these islands, infuriating China even more.

Writing about this incident, professor Emeritus Gavan McCormick of Australian National University noted: “It became possible to imagine that Senkaku/Diaoyu might even serve as the axis of Okinawan conversion to greater understanding of the national government’s defense and security agenda. … To the extent that ‘China threat’ perceptions spread, Okinawa’s anti-base movement would surely weaken.”

If this were indeed the DPJ government’s goal, it must be said that, in the face of the Okinawa people’s determined and ongoing anti-base struggle, this effort has yet to succeed. Yet, this has not prevented newly installed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from reaffirming the Japanese government’s commitment to maintain U.S. bases in Okinawa, including the hotly contested move of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from central part of Okinawa Island to Henoko in northern part of the island. This raises the possibility that if the Liberal Democratic Party wins the coming Upper House election, the Abe administration will initiate the move of the Marine base to Henoko. However, in the face of the Okinawan people’s fierce resistance to the move, the government will likely have to employ the riot police to quell opposition, possibly leading to bloody clashes. This would further infuriate Okinawans’ resentment and strengthen their perception that Okinawa is completely subjugated by Japan proper as represented by the Tokyo government. An irreparable schism between Okinawa and Japan proper might well be the final result.

At the same time, the alleged threat posed by China has provided a compelling justification for allowing Japan to exercise the right to “collective defense.” Speaking to NHK on Jan. 13, Abe said: “Reviewing the right to collective self-defense is one of Abe administration’s central policy aims, and because of that I want to discuss it with President (Barack) Obama.”

The policy of exercising the right to collective defense has long been a goal of the LDP. However, up to this point, it was thought that a formal revision of the Constitution would be necessary. Given the difficulties involved in amending the Constitution, the LDP’s goal has heretofore been impossible to achieve. Now, thanks to the alleged threat from China, the possibility of simply “reinterpreting” Article Nine is on the table.

As noted in a Feb. 3 article in the Stars and Stripes: “A reinterpretation of Article 9 would only have to be certified by the [Japanese] Cabinet’s legal affairs bureau as being consistent with the constitution. Such reinterpretations have allowed Japan to provide logistical support to U.S. missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past. Added reinterpretations could also aid cooperation with the United States on missile defense projects.”

Favorable comments like these in a semi-official U.S. military newspaper suggest that the U.S. is no disinterested bystander to the Senkaku dispute. In fact, U.S. interest in maintaining military bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, has only increased in the wake of Obama’s “Asia Pivot” speech delivered in Australia in November 2011.

The unstated heart of the Asia Pivot revolves around the U.S. intention to “contain” China. That is, to make sure that China is unable to contest America’s long-standing dominant role in Asia. America’s current Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade area proposal, excluding China as it does, is another aspect of this containment policy.

Former dovish DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s professed 2009 intention to “re-examine the role of U.S. military bases in Japan,” as it appeared in the DPJ’s manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election, sent shockwaves through both the U.S. and Japanese bureaucracies. This was compounded by Hatoyama’s further proposal to create an East Asian version of the European Economic Community, an entity that by definition would have excluded the U.S.

In responding to Hatoyama, including his proposal to move the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa, Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministry bureaucrats acted in the manner to which they have long been accustomed. That is to say, they responded by supporting the will and interests of the U.S. This only hastened the collapse of the Hatoyama administration.

As for the U.S., then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus means that if China uses military force in the dispute, the U.S. is committed to take all necessary actions, including military force, to repel it.

In so doing, the U.S. projects the image of a steadfast, and necessary, ally of Japan in its time of need. At the same time, U.S. military bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, become more important than ever.

This does not mean, however, that the U.S. currently seeks war with China, for after more than a decade of unwinnable war in Afghanistan, not to mention Iraq, the American people are war-weary, not to mention financially strapped. On the other hand, it is in the interest of at least some actors in the U.S. to keep the “pot boiling” even while ensuring, at least for the time being, it doesn’t lead to outright military conflict. That is to say, faced with cuts to the defense budget, the powerful U.S. military-industrial complex needs a new and creditable foreign threat if it hopes to maintain, let alone increase, its current share of government expenditures.

A rising China fits the bill perfectly. And, although it is a risky strategy, there is the added benefit that Japan will further increase its purchase of U.S. armaments while also engaging in the joint development of ever more sophisticated and lethal weaponry, especially in the field of missile technology. This joint development will also benefit the Japanese defense industry, especially given Japan’s expected increase in defense expenditures.

All of this suggests that the dispute over the Senkakus, whether wanted or not, serves the interests of powerful actors in both Japan and the U.S. At the same time, it raises the question of how long it will be before Japanese young men, and possibly women, face death on the battlefield, this time alongside their American, or even NATO, counterparts?

Brian A. Victoria is a professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

  • Excellent article, professor.

  • Guest

    In light of statements made in China recently claiming Okinawa (and even Hawaii) as their “traditional” lands, it appears that this right-wing attitude within the Red Party is not benign.. On a more practical side, however, it is well within reason to think that China “needs” these areas for food even more than it needs them for defence. 1 billion people working 24/7 need to eat, and that’s a lot of fish…
    The agriculture sector is still quite primitive and there’s basically not enough duck feet to go around. Fish can be the only answer to this expansion.

  • Jack

    I think you hit a couple of nails right on their heads.

    • alfred e newman

      he completely missed the rest

  • Excellent analysis. However I don’t think people of Japan care too much the rationale behind the Senkaku conflict. They perceived that “their” island being invaded and wanted the government to shovel away the Chinese with whatever means. Therefore the popularity of the Abe rhetoric.

  • Douglas Levene

    Prof. Victoria well represents the “blame-America-first” school of thought that has dominated American academia since the end of the Vietnam War.

    He might try spending some time in the PRC, though, before he writes another article about how blameless the CCP is in fomenting tensions in the South China Sea. As an expat in the PRC, I can assure you that the view from here is very different.

    • Observer123

      I don’t think Prof. Victoria is speaking of the South China Sea. He is speaking of Diaoyu/Senkaku which is located in the East China Sea. My suggestion is to look at the island disputes in the Pacific case by case, as almost every case is different. Heck, Japan has island disputes not only with China, but also South Korea and Russia! So this is not a China-only problem as you are trying to imply, but rather a perhaps a Japan problem.

      • Christopher-trier

        China also has disputes with India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Laos and Cambodia can be added to the list if water rights are considered. Russia and China are hardly comfortable with each other and China frequently tramples over Russian territory.

        The dispute between Japan and Russia is being worked on. The South Korea/Japan dispute can be worked on but morons on both sides inflamed the situation.

    • Observer123

      I don’t think Prof. Victoria is referring to the South China Sea. He is talking about the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue in the East China Sea. We really need to look at the island disputes on a case-by-case basis or else, heck, we ourselves get confused with one issue to another. Japan herself has island disputes with 2 other nations, Russia and South Korea, so may be there is something going on with Japan, not just China.

    • disqus_bugafmk1Tf

      Sorry, Douglas6, but I don’t belong to the “blame-America-first” school, but I do belong to the “there’s enough blame to go around” school of thought in most international disputes, especially as concerns both Japan and the US. And Observer 123 is quite correct that my article refers exclusively to the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. My basic point is the same as one made long ago in the Christian Bible, i.e., it is ever so much easier to see the ‘mote’ in the other person’s eye but not in one’s own. How about some ‘even-handedness’ for a change? Note that I didn’t deny China has some ‘hidden agendas’ as well.

  • Observer123

    Douglas, no one is trying to blame America-first. But America being the world leader it is has certain responsibilities to be the honest and fair arbitier, even if it may come down to siding with our perceived enemies. That is the only way we can regain the moral high ground and have moral sway over our potential rivals. Otherwise, we are just the big bad bully out to bullying our perceived rivals. We will only make more enemies around the world and one of these days, we will get what we throw around the world.

  • MaxLecompte

    Professor Victoria performs an old intellectual sleight of hand here. Why not start the analysis with China’s 2004 intrusion? Perhaps because that fact that doesn’t fit the Professor’s foregone conclusion that the US & Japan are at fault for escalating. Heck, maybe the recent radar incident was also an escalation. Finally, the professor is willfully blind toward China’s advances on the Philippines, Vietnam, Xinjiang, and Tibet. There is a pattern of behavior here professor. Pay attention.

    • disqus_bugafmk1Tf

      Dear Louparte,

      Thank you for your post. I am, in fact, paying attention to what both Japan and the US are doing, That is to say, the advantages both countries reap from the alleged Chinese threat. If you wish to join the debate please address the question of whether or not Japan and the US stand to benefit from the confrontation over the Senkakus.

      Best wishes,

      Brian Victoria

  • 思德

    Taiwan is missing from the equation. I’d be more happy to see Taiwan and Japan work out some kind of agreement, especially considering that the islands are quite close to Taiwan. If I’m not mistaken, Taiwan and Japan worked out an arrangement whereby Taiwanese boats can fish around the islands.

    The article is about how the US and Japanese MICs stand to benefit. Granted, they do. The defense companies always stand to benefit from this kind of tension.

    Wasn’t the governor of Tokyo going to buy the islands and the Japanese federal government essentially beat them to the punch? My question in that case is, could the central government stopped that governor from buying the islands?

    If so, then yes, Japan is guilty of escalating the issue when it didn’t need to be escalated. The problem I have with all this talk of escalation, however, is that it seems that the root issue is being ignored. There would not be a problem if China was not making claims on territories all over the place. Poor China! It’s gentleman’s agreement to not make claims on things that don’t belong to it got broken!

    As far as the US goes, why should it cede its influence in East Asia / Southeast Asia to an autocratic state that has a miserable record of institutionalized human rights abuses, overtly censors its media, prohibits free speech, throws political dissidents in jail, does not permit other political entities to exist, and pollutes with a reckless abandon that makes the US look saintly by comparison? Allowing a state like that to have its way in the region is naive in the extreme. Chinese people are fine; their government is suspect at best, and shouldn’t be allowed to do things willy-nilly without some political push back.

    • 思德

      I’m not judging this piece to harshly because I don’t think it is meant to be comprehensive, but only to examine one part of the problem. But if the author or anyone reading the article thinks that the Japanese-American military industrial complex is the only thing driving the issue, that is a gross oversimplification. There are a lot of layers to issues like this; people prone to conspiracy theories and pet political ideologies fall victim to the idea that a single actor or a small number of actors are driving everything.

  • Samuraijamie

    Japan is so advanced in many areas, one area that really lets it down is in its diplomatic affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs are utter amateurs played for fools by the Chinese, Russians and Koreans, as well as the US. Japan has a large military and large economic power, but is seemingly impotent in being able to use these to advance its interests abroad.