The U.S. and Japan May Literally Start a War over Rocks in the South China Sea
China’s increasingly truculent behavior in the East and South China Seas has generated apprehension over China’s intentions and deepened U.S. concerns, especially over freedom of navigation, land reclamation and the potential militarization of disputed features by China. Analysis has focused primarily on the law of the sea, the legitimacy of China’s expansive claims that are now being challenged by the Philippines in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (with a long-awaited decision expected on July 12), and much debate over U.S. policy and ASEAN’s response. However, little analysis has been devoted to the alliance security dilemma and how this influences the behavior of U.S. allies, Japan and the Philippines, in their disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea respectively.
While Washington takes no position on the sovereignty issue, the dynamics of the security dilemma in alliance politics influences the behavior of U.S. allies and China. In fact, there are two games—the alliance game and the adversary game. Forming alliances incurs costs by taking on commitments to defend allies which reduces Washington’s freedom of action and can entangle the U.S. in disputes with its allies’ adversary, in this case China. Specifically, the alliance security dilemma is how resolutely the U.S. should commit to support its allies. A strong commitment can result in entrapment in an unwanted dispute (with China in this case). If U.S. allies feel assured that the Washington is strongly committed to the alliance they may become more intransigent in their territorial disputes with China or engage in risky behavior that could lead to a militarized dispute. Conversely, a week commitment by the United States will increase its allies concerns over U.S. support, but can restrain their risky behavior and encourage them to seek a compromise resolution of their disputes with China, thus reducing U.S. concerns over entrapment.
In the case of the alliance adversary, the obverse is true. If Beijing perceives a weak commitment on the part of the U.S. to its allies, China may show little willingness to engage in negotiations to reach a compromise settlement or possibly engage in more aggressive behavior risking war. However, if China perceives that the U.S. doggedly supports its allies, this may lead to less intransigent behavior on the part of Beijing.
The upshot is any move in the alliance game affects the adversary game and vice versa. The sum of these effects must be considered within the larger strategic calculations. An expansionist adversary can be deterred by showing firmer commitment to one’s ally. However, strong alliance commitments risk entrapment and can encourage an ally’s risky behavior. But a weak commitment increases strains within the alliances and raises questions about the extent allies can count on U.S. backing in case of confrontation. But this hopefully motivates allies to pursue negotiations and a peaceful resolution of these disputes. A strong U.S. commitment to allies incurs side-effects by increasing tensions in U.S.–China relations, but this can deter China from engaging in more aggressive behavior and open the way for compromise. Therefore, the alliance security dilemma requires careful consideration of the trade-offs between the alliance game and the adversary game.
In the case of Japan, the U.S. does take a clear stand regarding obligations to help Japan defend territory over which is exercises administrative control, but in the case of the Philippines the U.S. is much more circumspect. A central question is whether or not the US-Japan mutual security treaty applies in the case of a militarized conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. At the time of the Okinawa reversion in 1972, the U.S.-administered Senkaku Islands were included. At the time, the United States stated that disputed sovereignty is a matter between Japan and China, and the United States maintains neutrality; the United States was simply transferring administration over the islands to Japan, not recognizing Japanese sovereignty. This left the question of the U.S. obligation to help defend the islands vague.
Secretary of State Clinton clarified the U.S. position on October 2010. Responding to a journalist’s question Clinton stated: “Well, first let me say clearly again that the Senkakus fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. This is part of the larger commitment that the United States has made to Japan’s security.” While government officials have stated on many occasions that the U.S. expects the claimants to resolve disputes through peaceful means, among themselves, Richard Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State, said that Beijing misunderstood this U.S. position of neutrality over the sovereignty issues and he made clear “that the U.S. is not neutral when one of its allies is being coerced, intimidated, or the victim of aggression,” stressing that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty “implies that the U.S. has a responsibility for defending the Senkakus, and that hardly makes the country neutral.” Washington has taken steps to back up its commitment to help Japan defend the Senkaku Islands.