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US should aim to calm the conflict it helped create

Publication Date : 27-09-2012


During anti-Japanese protests in Beijing last week, a group of about 50 demonstrators surrounded the car of the American ambassador, Gary Locke, chanted slogans about disputed islands, and prevented the vehicle from entering the embassy compound until Chinese security personnel intervened.

The incident showed that, in the mind of the Chinese public, the United States was very much on Japan's side despite Washington's repeated assertions that it does not take any position on the “ultimate sovereignty of the Senkakus,” or Diaoyutai Islands.

But while the United States says that it is neutral in the dispute, it has also said that the islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty of 1960 and thus under American military protection.

The American defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who visited Japan and China last week, urged both countries to exercise “calm and restraint,” saying “it is extremely important that diplomatic means on both sides be used.”

Chinese officials, meanwhile, urged Washington to honour its promise of not taking sides. From China's standpoint, the US is in Japan's corner and thus cannot be an impartial mediator.

Indeed, China traces the problem to actions taken by the United States. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement issued Sept. 10 pointed out that, while the San Francisco peace treaty placed the Ryukyu Islands under the trusteeship of the United States in 1951, two years later the United States “arbitrarily expanded its jurisdiction to include the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands.”

Twenty years later, when the United States agreed to return Okinawa to Japan, the Diaoyutaiss were included in the reversion.

Relations between China and Japan are at their lowest point since 1972, when they were first established. Certainly, a great deal has changed. China has replaced Japan as the world's second-largest economy and is expected to overtake the United States to become number one in the not too distant future.

China's new-found confidence is reflected in utterances in the official media. On Sunday, the People's Daily newspaper called on Japan to “repent” and said that “Japan's two-decade economic downturn has rapidly changed the power balance between China and Japan.”

“China is no longer a weak opponent,” the Global Times declared, “regardless of the role of the US in the matter. Strategic confrontation is not a choice for Japan.”

Indeed, in a commentary before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Beijing earlier this month, the state agency Xinhua warned the US not to try to contain China and said: “To be frank, US power is declining and it hasn't enough economic strength or resources to dominate the Asia-Pacific region.”

As for the American policy of “returning” to Asia, a People's Daily commentary declared: “The current Asia is completely different from the Asia in the Cold War period. China's comprehensive national strength has obviously grown and its international status has greatly risen.”

And Xinhua bluntly called on the US to “take concrete steps to prove that it is returning to Asia as a peacemaker instead of a troublemaker.”

Ever since Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, the US has tried, without success, to convince Beijing that its alliance with Japan does not constitute a threat to China.

The Chinese evidently see the current crisis as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the two allies. They are advising Japan to play an independent role and act as a bridge between the US and China.

At the same time, they are telling the US that it stands to benefit from cooperating with China while warning the US that Japan is steadily moving to the right and may one day constitute a threat to the world.

The current crisis presents the United States with a dilemma. Japan is its chief ally in Asia and any sign that Washington is reneging on its treaty commitments will cast doubt on the value of its treaties with other countries.

On the other hand, China is clearly the power to deal with in the future and the US doesn't want to jeopardise that relationship.

But China is right that the current deadlock is partly a result of American policies during the Cold War. The question is what can the US do today?

The answer seems to be: precious little. Still, it must use whatever influence it has to see to it that the crisis remains no more than a war of words. The United States needs to be seen as doing something to resolve a problem that it helped to create.


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