The great English novelist Charlotte Brontë once complained, “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!” Obama administration officials today have some sympathy for Ms. Brontë’s lament. This morning their good friend, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, greatly complicated their diplomacy in northeast Asia with a vow to use force if China attempts to land forces on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The vow is sure to increase tensions that had seemed to be easing over the isolated and barren rocks in the East China Sea that may (or may not) sit atop significant oil and gas reserves.
Abe’s tough talk comes just days after three members of his cabinet visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine honors Japan’s war dead, including fourteen so-called Class A war criminals from World War II. Japan’s neighbors see official visits to Yasukuni as clear evidence that Japan fails to understand the enormity of the crimes it inflicted on the rest of Asia seven decades ago. South Korea responded to the Yasukuni visit by canceling its foreign minister’s planned trip to Tokyo this weekend. Many Japanese parliamentarians, however, don’t seem inclined to be conciliatory. This morning 168 of them visited the shrine.
Even if the controversy over the Yasukuni Shrine evaporated, and it won’t, the Obama administration faces tough decisions over the Senkaku dispute. As my colleague Sheila Smith argues in a Contingency Planning Memorandum that CFR released today on tensions in the East China Sea, the stakes are high:
Until recently, this territorial dispute was little more than a minor irritant in Sino-Japanese relations. However, against the backdrop of China’s growing military power, the island dispute has increased concerns in Tokyo about Beijing’s regional intentions and the adequacy of Japan’s security, while stoking nationalistic politics in both capitals. Political miscalculation in Tokyo or Beijing, or unintended military interactions in and around the disputed islands, could escalate further, leading to an armed clash between Asia’s two largest powers. The United States, as a treaty ally of Japan but with vital strategic interests in fostering peaceful relations with China, has a major stake in averting such a clash and resolving the dispute, if possible.
So Washington has to find a way to dissuade China without jeopardizing other U.S. interests in play with Beijing (think North Korea for starters). It simultaneously has to reassure Tokyo of U.S. support for its claim to administrative control of the Senkaku Islands while making it clear to Abe and his government that they are not free to act as they see fit. This diplomatic tightrope walk could easily be disrupted by an accident or miscalculation. Military officers on the scene sometimes misunderstand or exceed their orders, and third parties such as fisherman or civilian activists can trigger chains of events that no one anticipated.
All in all, it’s a significant diplomatic challenge for the White House. So I strongly encourage you to read Sheila’s article to see what options the Obama administration has and why even the best of intentions could lead to pretty lousy results.