Striking the right balance Washington cannot earn the trust necessary for its geostrategic interests if he keeps turning a blind eye to Japan’s provocations
US Secretary of State John Kerry is due to address the tense regional security situation during his talks in Beijing on Friday. Three issues will be high on his agenda: Japan’s territorial disputes with China and the Republic of Korea, China’s air defense identification zone, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
On the first two there are wide gaps between China and the US.
At present, Japan’s disputes with China and the ROK have seriously destabilized Northeast Asia, with far-reaching ramifications. Both China’s Diaoyu Islands and the ROK’s Dukdo Island fell into the hands of imperialist Japan as a result of its aggression. Though Japan put different names on the islands, such colonial occupation ought to have been reversed.
The rift between Japan and the ROK, the two main allies of the US in the region, naturally bothers the US greatly, as it is undermining the US’ geostrategic interests in Northeast Asia.
However, the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands is far more serious, as it is more likely to flare up into physical conflict between the two Asian giants. Despite China’s decades-long self-restraint regarding this issue and its long-standing proposal to “shelve” the dispute in the interests of better relations between the two countries, Japan took the initiative to change the status quo that existed by “nationalizing” the three main islands in 2012.
The US is now caught somewhere in between. Yet it should be pointed out that the US too is to blame for the present situation, as it caused the discord between China and Japan in the first place by handing these Chinese islands, which it was in possession of at the end of World War II, to Japan in 1972 instead of returning them to China.
Kerry has since added fuel to fire by stating the islands are covered by the US’ mutual cooperation and security treaty with Japan. This was no doubt intended as a deterrent, as the US does not want to throw itself into a war with China. But this attempt at coercive rebalancing has backfired as Japan has only become further emboldened, pushing the tensions to the brink of physical confrontation, truly threatening the Pax Americana in East Asia.
The White House and State Department should be critical of Abe and curb his historical revisionism, if only in the US’ self-interest, as Abe’s militarist ambitions threaten the US geopolitical interests.
Meanwhile, Kerry has said the Air Defense Identification Zone that China recently established in the East China Sea is destabilizing. However, he failed to mention that it was Tokyo that first introduced an air defense identification zone in the region in 1969, and that in 1972 it aggressively expanded this zone to include the Diaoyu Islands. Given this, the US’ biased stance toward China’s Air Defense Identification Zone, especially in the context of Chinese legitimate sovereignty, is counterproductive to its rebalancing in East Asia.
But despite the US’ misguided approach to the territorial dispute between China and Japan and China’s Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, China and the US can still find common ground on the issue of DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. Along with Russia, the ROK and Japan, they share the same interest in peacefully dismantling that program, on terms which DPRK finds acceptable.
Since 2003, China has taken the initiative in finding a solution to the issue with the Six-Party Talks, attempting to find a mutually acceptable solution to common security without nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Though this solution has not yet been attained, the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia have been less turbulent than they would be otherwise, especially given the dramatic spike in tensions following the DPRK’s third nuclear test last spring.
China has taken a more prominent role in lowering the temperature on the peninsula, and there is room for collaboration in this regard should Kerry strike the right note in the US’ rebalancing. The author is a professor and associate dean of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University.