Don't Double Down on the Senkakus

America's guarantees to Japan are just right; making them tougher and clearer would increase tensions for little gain.

My colleague Harry White has made a bold policy suggestion: that President Obama articulate an explicit commitment to the defence of the Senkaku Islands. Based on the idea that China misunderstands the depth of America’s commitment to Japan, White suggests that such a security guarantee might convince China that the United States is serious about its alliance commitment. Citing recent Chinese actions and media reports, White claims that previous comments from senior U.S. officials, who affirmed that the Senkaku Islands fall under Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, have not convinced China of American resolve.

However, the deterrence of China is only one of America’s goals in Asia. It is also seeking to restrain Japan so that regional tensions might be better managed. The Senkaku Islands issue intensified in September 2012 when Japan purchased three of the islands, despite the United States providing ‘very strong advice not to go in this direction.’ Rather than perceiving a revanchist China to be solely responsible for the current security tensions, the Obama administration is probably more willing to apportion blame to both Tokyo and Beijing.

This is obviously a challenging situation for the United States. Glenn Snyder, an international-relations scholar, wrote that in such situations the challenge is one of ‘trying to optimize among four objectives: restrain the ally, but avoid alienating him, deter the opponent but avoid provoking him.’ The key risk is that both the ally and opponent will indulge in wishful thinking, hearing only the message they want to hear.

If China were an unambiguously aggressive power, then a firm deterrent message could be the last best chance of avoiding war. However, if China’s intentions are not completely revanchist, then a presidential statement could provoke China and propagate an ‘insecurity spiral’: the situation where states interpret the defensive moves of other states as aggressive, and thus a trend of tit-for-tat escalation emerges.

Right now, John Kerry seems quite concerned about this possibility. Speaking about the rebalance strategy and American bases in Asia, Kerry said ‘the Chinese take a look at that and say, “What's the United States doing? They trying to circle us?”…We need to think thoughtfully about not creating a threat where there isn’t one and understanding very carefully where we can find a basis of better cooperation’.

Thus, the United States is faced with an acute dilemma—how does it deter Chinese aggressiveness while avoiding an insecurity spiral? How does it simultaneously reassure Japan, but also stop it from antagonising China?

A presidential security guarantee is not the answer to either question. Firstly, it is likely to provoke China, not deter it. A Chinese audience would certainly not overlook the obvious omission in White’s draft statement: it doesn’t include the usual disclaimer that the United States remains neutral on the question of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. Without this face-saving gesture the statement might encourage, rather than deter, an aggressive Chinese response. Also, China might perceive such a security statement—coming from the president, and not a senior official—to be another escalation of the status quo.