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United States neutrality in the East China Sea row, can it be trusted?

The Sino-Japanese dispute on the claims of sovereignty and the territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands (as known in Japan) or Diaoyu Islands (as known in China) in the East China Sea is taking its toll. Top diplomats from both nations met for the second time in October to explore possible solutions to mend their frayed bilateral ties. So far the tension is causing economic damage that is hurting Japanese investments in China.

While the disputation is about hoisting one’s national flag in the mineral resource rich islands, what is at stake is not just sovereignty of the islands but power relations between China and the United States. It is also China’s regional interest versus Japan’s and United States’. For this reasons, it is essential to analyze the United States’ position in East Asia and how it fuels the dispute instead of diffusing it by assisting China and Japan to find diplomatic ways to joint sovereignty over this area.

The United States is in a process of countering China’s diplomatic and strategic position in the Asia-Pacific region by taking advantage of maritime disputes between China and her neighboring Asian nations who claim territorial sovereignty of the disputed waters. Like in the South China Sea, it has proclaimed its neutrality in the dispute over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. At the same time it has declared its support for Japan if a war was to break out with China over this.

The tension rose in the recent weeks after Japan formally purchased the disputed Islands from a private owner in September. This led to a major protest in Beijing against Japanese businesses in China. Then there was the boycott by China’s foreign ministry where two Chinese top officials, together with China’s big four Banks, failed to attend the IMF and World Bank meeting held in Tokyo. The United States remained quiet about Japan’s purchase of the Islands.

The latest acts by the United States in an attempt to strengthen its power and presence in the Asia-Pacific regions are part of the problem that contributes to the increasing tension in the East China Sea. This is also the case in the South China Sea, where instead of acting as a neutral player in the disputes, the United States is taking sides to support states that are in dispute with China. In the South China Sea, it continues to provide backing to the Philippines by strengthening its military power and providing advanced weaponry designed to react against maritime threats, and China is the main target. As for Vietnam, the United States turned a blind eye when the Vietnamese parliament passed a maritime law to bring the Spratly islands under Vietnam jurisdiction. The United States did not do anything but it was quick to react and condemn China’s move to build a city in the islands.

Regarding the US-Japanese relations, United States continues to use Japan to project its power and presence in the East China Sea. This is evident by the US’s latest move to step up security cooperation with Japan that led to a declaration of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security that covers the Sinkaku islands. The cooperation also includes a joint-marine exercise of islands targeted operations in the East China Sea in a show of support for Japan territorial rights of the Senkaku islands.

The fact that each nation is looking out for her national pride creates a challenge for one party to compromise the claim for sovereign ownership of the islands. But again, this can be a matter of both governments’ decisions to create an environment that will allow the Chinese and Japanese people to accommodate each other’s historical ties in the islands without fuelling the conflict about who is the exclusive and rightful owner.

Consequently the Sinkaku/Diaoyu tension is increasingly affecting the bilateral relations of both nations’ economies despite China’s argument that the dispute will have more negative impact on the Japanese than the Chinese economy. However the greatest concern is that the effect of the dispute will soon begin to affect the global economy. China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies respectively, accounting for nearly one fifth of global gross domestic product (GDP) and their two-way trade amounts to over $US340 billion a year. Consequently, the repercussions will have a negative effect not only to the two nations but the global economy if this is not properly resolved.

Furthermore, the prospect of stability will not avail for as long as the interest of the United States in the disputed islands continues to dominate the interest of the states involved. A joint sovereignty on maritime rights can be possibly achieved under mutual agreements by China and Japan if both can agree about how the ramifications will greatly affect their bilateral relations if the tension continues to exist.

Mr. Kenny Dlamini holds a BA Hons in Politics from the Rhodes University and is a NRF research assistant at the IGD. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

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