U.S. Drifting into Troubled Waters Near China

Secretary of State John Kerry recently reiterated that the United States remains neutral regarding disputes between China and several neighbors over islands in the South China Sea and between China and Japan over an island chain in the East China Sea.  If his statements reflected actual U.S. policy, that would be reassuring.  Unfortunately, as I write here, U.S. actions belie Washington’s protestations of neutrality.  That is worrisome, because U.S. officials risk entangling the United States in an assortment of messy quarrels in which this country has few legitimate interests at stake.

Regarding the South China Sea disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and other claimants, Washington’s attitude seems to be “anybody but China.”  At various times the United States has shown an unsubtle bias, especially in favor of the Philippines and Vietnam.  The breathtaking scope of China’s claims (well over half the South China Sea and the islands dotting it) understandably agitate Washington.  Key sea lanes pass through the area, and as the world’s leading maritime power, the United States certainly does not want any nation to get a chokehold on those routes.  But that danger is many years away, if it ever emerges.  In the meantime, Washington’s anti-China bias is angering both the Chinese government and the Chinese public, and that is too high a price to pay for taking an uncompromising stance regarding uninhabited islets in a body of water half-way around the world.

The quarrel between China and Japan over the chain of East China Sea islands (called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China) is potentially far more dangerous to the United States than the South China Sea squabbles.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in 2010 that Washington’s 1960 defense pact with Japan covers the Senkakus.  Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, was equally definitive in September 2012, stating bluntly that the disputed islands were “clearly” covered by the treaty, which obliges the United States to come to Japan’s aid if attacked.  And earlier this month, Secretary Kerry renewed the pledge of solidarity

The Obama administration’s policy is both contradictory and foolhardy.  Even as they applied the defense treaty to the Senkakus, U.S. officials insist that the United States takes no position on the substance of the dispute.  But that stance makes no sense.   By affirming that the mutual security treaty includes the Senkakus, Washington clearly regards the islands as Japanese territory, so U.S. officials are prejudging the issue—a point that the Chinese have noted.

And by indicating that Japan could invoke the 1960s treaty in the event of a military incident involving the Senkakus, the Obama administration is encouraging, whether deliberately or not, the Japanese government and public to be more uncompromising regarding the dispute.  Not surprisingly, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done just that. 

Washington is playing a dangerous game by implicitly backing certain parties regarding emotional territorial disagreements.  Except for the preservation of navigation rights through the relevant bodies of water, the United States does not have important interests at stake in these disputes.  Strict neutrality is appropriate—in deeds as well as words.