The Skeptics

Japan’s Squabble with China: Larger Implications

Tensions between Japan and China mushroomed over the past three weeks because of the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain who was operating near a chain of disputed islands. The diplomatic flap was the worst quarrel between Tokyo and Beijing in several decades, and it is not yet resolved, even though Japanese officials blinked and ordered the release of the captain. Beijing demands an apology and compensation from Japan, but Japanese leaders have flatly rejected that demand.

The brouhaha has importance beyond a parochial dispute over small, obscure, and mostly uninhabited islets. For one thing, there are indications that there may be significant reservoirs of oil and natural gas in the area, which could make those spits of land and the surrounding waters extremely valuable. For another thing, Japan and other countries in East Asia are becoming nervous about China’s increasingly aggressive and expansive maritime claims throughout the region. This latest incident does nothing to soothe their nerves.

Even so, such disputes would normally be a matter of bilateral—or at most, regional—concern. But because of its security alliance with Japan, the United States could someday be drawn into that parochial spat. Washington has a treaty obligation to defend Japan in the case of an armed confrontation with another state. But there is a delicate question of how far that obligation extends when some of Japan’s territorial boundaries are murky. Would American forces have to go eyeball to eyeball with Chinese forces, if an armed conflict broke out between China and Japan over these disputed islands? The situation is far from clear.

The worrisome chance that the United States could be entangled in a conflict that has little or no relevance to America’s own interests begs the question of how many other obligations could pose similar dangers to this country. The answer is, unfortunately, quite a few. Washington has a treaty commitment to help defend more than two dozen members of NATO, including the three Baltic republics that are not only located on the border with Russia but have problematic relations with that large neighbor. Through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has an explicit obligation to help Taiwan defend itself, including, implicitly, by using U.S. forces to shield the island from a Chinese military attack, if necessary. That commitment becomes ever more troubling, since China regards Taiwan as rightfully Chinese territory—and Beijing’s economic and military power to enforce that claim grows steadily.

Perhaps the strangest conflict that could create liabilities for the United States is the ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea over yet another set of uninhabited islets. Tensions have flared several times between those two countries regarding the issue. One wag mused about what the United States would do if the dispute ever escalated to blows between Washington’s two allies. With tongue buried firmly in his cheek, he suggested that, to be fair, we should assign the Marines stationed on Okinawa to assist Japanese forces and have the Army units stationed on the Korean Peninsula support South Korean forces in the conflict.

All joking aside, making security commitments to other countries is a serious and potentially dangerous business. Too often, U.S. officials have acted as though such commitments will never be challenged, and therefore, there is no need to worry about the potential risks they could pose. That is naive, if not delusional, thinking, and the recent flap between Japan and China should lead to a careful assessment of the possible implications of all such commitments.