How Japan's Nationalization Move in the East China Sea Shaped the U.S. Rebalance

"While no firm verdict on the rebalance will be in soon, it’s clear that a set of decisions two years ago greatly impacted both its successes and challenges."

When President Obama heads to Beijing next month for a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), it will be an opportunity to take stock of the “rebalance”: to measure its impact on the region and the success of its objectives. Three years after Obama first announced the strategic shift in American military, economic and diplomatic resources (“the Pivot”) in 2011, the results are something of a mixed bag. The United States has enhanced military partnerships while outlining plans for bolstering its military presence in the region, yet on the economic front, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks drag on with tenuous prospects. Diplomatically, the Pew Research Center on one hand reports a plurality of respondents in every Asian country polled except Pakistan, Malaysia and China view the United States as its greatest ally. On the other hand, pluralities in these three are joined by Indonesia in viewing the United States as their nations’ greatest threat.

For the Chinese press, however, the fix is in. As Xinhua noted in August, thanks to the American rebalance, the neighborhood has “lost its tranquility” by emboldening partners to take a hard stance towards China. Yet this narrative ignores not only the role that China’s unilateral actions and bellicose talk have had in sending neighbors in the South China Sea scrambling for naval upgrades, but also discounts how a momentous series of decisions in the East China Sea has impacted regional dynamics. In September 2012, Japan’s national government announced that it had agreed to purchase three of the five disputed Senkaku islands (known to mainland China as Diaoyutai; Taiwan as Tiaoyutai) from their private Japanese owner. The Japanese decision to nationalize these islands and the Chinese decision to confront Japan over the action have perhaps done more to shape the rebalance and the success of its implementation than any other actions.


Much about the decisions remains a matter of conjecture. When Japan sparked the crisis through its purchase on September 11, 2012, it did so ostensibly to preempt the governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, ultranationalist Shintaro Ishihara, from himself purchasing the islands. Ishihara had declared his intention to do so months earlier in April 2012 and would likely have built structures on the Senkakus explicitly to provoke China. Reinhard Drifte’s extensive examination in the Asia-Pacific Journal of the incident describes the Japanese decision-making process as driven by the belief that they were choosing between the lesser of two evils and then attempting to convince China of this view. Whether or not Japan believed it had succeeded in doing so, Drifte notes that a delay in the deal with Ishihara after his private survey of the islands on September 2 created the opening for the central government to purchase them instead.

Much about Japan’s decision indicates communication failures. Subsequent comments by Japanese officials imply Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government was surprised by the Chinese response, and former U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said in a 2013 interview “Even though [the United States] warned Japan, Japan decided to go in a different direction, and they thought they had gained the support of China, or some did, which we were certain that they had not.”

Did the United States know Japan would purchase the islands? Perhaps not imminently, but by September 2012, it should have been clear that one of the “two evils” would occur. This is all the more readily apparent when one considers that the most important question—whether Japan could have prevented Ishihara’s purchase of the islands through some other, less incendiary means—is strangely never asked, but often assumed by those who have subsequently criticized the decision. If there was a third option it is not now readily discussed, and was likely not then obvious.[1] This is an excellent example of the need for creativity in diplomacy and government, but it seems time and energy were spent elsewhere once Noda’s circle believed it had found a palatable option.