Washington currently confronts an array of diplomatic and security challenges in East Asia. The most serious one, of course, is North Korea's continuing drive to join the global nuclear weapons club. But the United States is also entangled in another delicate and potentially nasty regional issue—the worrisome confrontation between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.
The two problems share a common feature. Although U.S. policy preferences may overlap with those of its principal East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, there are also crucial differences. Most notably, the allies take increasingly hard-line stances and push Washington to back their positions. That narrows U.S. policy options and creates the very real risk of having an allied tail wagging the American dog.
The risk seems most acute with respect to the Sino-Japanese dispute over the uninhabited islets. Tokyo has become surprisingly assertive toward Beijing over the past year, and there have been several unpleasant incidents between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese maritime forces. Washington has insisted that it remains neutral regarding the substance of the territorial dispute, but Tokyo continues to seek firm U.S. backing for its position.
Indeed, Japanese officials, pundits and policy experts attempt to box-in the United States on the issue. A September 24, 2012 report by the Japan Institute of International Affairs, which has close ties to the Foreign Ministry, demonstrated that point all too clearly.
In light of historical facts and based on international law, it is clear that the Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of Japanese territory. In this connection, it must be noted that the US has unquestionably treated the Senkaku Islands as Japanese territory as evidenced by the US's exercise of its administrative rights to the Senkaku Islands as part of Okinawa under Article 3 of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and setting up firing/bombing ranges on these islands, and by the US's explicit agreement in the Agreed Minutes for the 1972 Okinawa Reversion Agreement that the Senkaku Islands are included within the scope of territory being returned to Japan under Article 1 of this agreement. This shows that the US cannot assume a neutral stance regarding territorial rights to these islands.
Given that attitude, it is unsurprising that Japanese officials insist that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty applies to the Senkakus, not just undisputed Japanese territory. Tokyo's pressure was likely one reason why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell both conceded that the treaty "clearly" covered the disputed islands. That is not merely a legal or academic matter, since the pact obligates the United States to come to Japan's aid if attacked.
True, a Sino-Japanese war over the dispute remains unlikely, primarily because of the countries' extensive bilateral economic ties. But when nationalist emotions run high, such considerations are not always enough to avoid calamity. Germany and France were major economic partners in 1914, but that did not prevent them from sliding into war.
Even if that worst-case scenario doesn't materialize, Washington's perceived need to back its most important ally in East Asia unwisely limits policy flexibility on an issue that is of peripheral relevance to U.S. interests. It also antagonizes China at a time when overall tensions between Beijing and Washington are on the rise.
The Obama administration faces similar allied pressure, this time from both Japan and South Korea, in its posture toward North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Japan has repeatedly pressed Washington to take a firmer stance regarding Pyongyang's behavior. That tension between the two allies goes back to North Korea's missile test in 1998 that overflew Japanese territory. Japan's government and populations viewed the Clinton administration's response as too casual and passive. Among other steps, the incident impelled Tokyo to develop robust, independent intelligence gathering capabilities instead of relying so heavily on information that Washington supplied.
More recently, Japan has prodded the U.S. to work for ever stronger UN sanctions against North Korea, even though China has—at least until Pyongyang's February nuclear test—resisted that strategy. Moreover, even if Kim Jong-un's government changed course and became cooperative on the missile and nuclear issues, there are strong objections in Japan to normalizing relations until North Korea accounts for and apologizes for its abduction of Japanese citizens. Once again, Tokyo's agenda limits and complicates Washington's diplomatic options.
South Korea is nearly as insistent as Japan that there should be little compromise with the North Korean regime—especially on the nuclear and missile issues. Seoul successfully pressed Washington last year to allow South Korean missiles to have a greater range, so that more North Korean targets would be vulnerable to a counterstrike in the event of war. Obama administration officials were not eager to comply with that request, but ultimately did so to placate its restless ally.
The diplomatic pressure shows few signs of easing, however. A March 10 New York Times story noted that two recent opinion polls show that two thirds of South Koreans now support the once-taboo notion of building an independent nuclear arsenal. The U.S. remains vehemently opposed to such a step, but merely threatening to consider that option if Pyongyang is not reined-in gives Seoul leverage over Washington's policy toward North Korea.
International relations scholars have long noted that small allies can sometimes manipulate their larger patrons into adopting measures that are not necessarily in the patron's best interest. Georgetown University Professor Emeritus Earl Ravenal went beyond that point, arguing that alliances serve as "transmission belts for war," converting minor, limited conflicts into something far worse. Serbia's manipulation of Russia in 1914 is perhaps the most tragic example.
The Obama administration needs to take steps now, not in the midst of a crisis, to distance its policies from those of Japan and South Korea on both the East China Sea and North Korean controversies. It is imperative for Washington to regain control of its policy options and not be manipulated by allies who favor questionable hard-line measures because of parochial motives.