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Clinton's Remarks Indicates U.S. Desire to Become Involved in Sino-Japanese Island Dispute

Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is on a multi-Asian tour trying to strengthen U.S. ties to China, Japan, Vietnam, and other Asian nations.   A recent dispute over the Diayou/Senkaku islands between China and Japan in the East Asian Sea loomed over visit.  “We’ve encouraged both Japan and China to seek a peaceful resolution of any disagreement,” Clinton said in a speech in Hanoi yesterday, where she attended a regional summit with Wen, Kan and 15 other Asia-Pacific leaders.  “It’s in all of our interests to have stable, peaceful relations” between China and Japan, she said.  In private meetings with Japan and China she has made clear that she wants the “temperature to go down on these issues” a senior official said.  The United States has not taken a position or become involved in the Senkaku/Diayou island dispute, even when the U.S. left this islands in the 1970s after decades of occupation following WWII, but that appears to be changing under the Obama administration.   The U.S. desire to mediate the dispute has China displeased.  Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, said China “will never accept any word or deed that includes the Diaoyu Islands within the scope” of the treaty.

Image available from ABC News.

The small collection of uninhabited islands off the coast of Taiwan has been a source of friction between Japan and China for over a century.  China lays claim to the islands dating back to the Ming Dynasty.   Japan has argued the islands belong to them due to the spoils of the 1894-1895 Sino-Japan War and as a consequence of the 1951 San Francisco Treaty (ending WWII between Japan and the United States).   China was not a party to the 1951 San Francisco Treaty and still fails to recognize Japan’s interpretation of it.   The two countries even call the group of islands different names.   China calls the rock formation the Diaoyu islands, while Japan has named it the Senkaku chain.   The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands have oil and natural gas deposits underneath them and there are fertile fishing grounds around the islands.  China and Japan also see control of the islands as a source of national pride.  For China it is potentially part of a strategy to assert a stronger military presence in the Pacific Ocean.

The dispute between China and Japan certainly needs to be resolved.  China has ceased high level talks with Japan on regional coal and fishing cooperation due to the Diayou/Senkaku islands dispute.  Japan and many other Asian countries would be willing to have the U.S. to become involved in solving regional sovereignty disputes with China. “The region fears being dominated by a rising China,” said Ernest Bower, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.  “The solution? Invite the Americans to join. This gives the rest of Asia the balance they want.”  However, the U.S. would likely seek a resolution siding with Japan because of closer ties to the country and that Japan probably has the upper hand in terms of international law, due to continued peaceful occupation.  China would also fear that any U.S. involvement may hint at deciding on Taiwan, which China continues to claim as part of its territory.

U.S. interests may be best served by continuing to remain neutral on the issue and not offering to mediate the dispute.  Any role as mediator would simply further anger China and would be seen as the U.S. seeking to become unnecessarily involved.  If the mediation would in the end give the islands to Japan then U.S.-China relations would become even more icy.  The U.S. wastes a great deal of its political capital with China by trying to become involved in the dispute, which would better be preserved for discussions on currency exchange or the expansion of the the Chinese naval fleet.  The U.S. should suggest the Diayou/Senkaku issue be resolved by submitting the issue to the an international tribunal or another arbitrator.  At a minimum, the U.S. could refrain from making public remarks about the dispute.

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