Don't Double Down on the Senkakus

October 8, 2013 Topic: Security Region: JapanUnited States

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.

Secondly, a presidential security guarantee might reassure and restrain Japan, but it also could embolden Japan to escalate the issue further, perhaps by placing government officials on the islands. White suggests that America could require that Japan ‘work towards a peaceful solution’, but a firmer security guarantee will reduce America’s ability to influence such an outcome. As the events of last September demonstrated, previous attempts to influence Japan’s behaviour towards China have been less than successful. For now, the best way for the US to restrain Japan is avoid giving it a firmer security guarantee. Reassurance can continue to be provided not only through the statements of senior officials, but also by improving America’s capability to intervene quickly if tensions escalate into military confrontation.

From the current U.S. perspective, the danger lies not in an undeterred China and an alienated Japan, but a provoked China and an unrestrained Japan. It is for this reason that the United States has adopted a very careful strategy: it is pursuing all four of the objectives described by Snyder, but currently is placing greater emphasis on the conciliation of China and the restraint of Japan.

For the time being, this is precisely how it should be. While tensions continue to simmer, and inadvertent military escalation remains a perennial concern, we are not yet at the point where a stronger articulation of American resolve is required. It is best to keep such options in reserve until a circuit breaker is truly needed.

Instead, it might be time for the Obama administration to reconsider the purpose and format of its rebalance strategy. Asian allies have been wondering whether the rebalance idea will persist beyond the departures of Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell, and this uncertainty is starting to be recognised in Washington. If the rebalance strategy is to encourage China’s peaceful rise but hedge against the possibility of aggression, it will require a united approach from America and its Asian allies. Achieving this won’t be easy, but it offers the best prospects for peace. After all, China will find it hard to believe American claims of conciliation, such as Clinton’s comment that the ‘Pacific is big enough for all of us’, if tensions between China and American allies persist in the South and East China Seas.

To achieve a united approach, America will need some allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, to adopt more conciliatory postures towards China, while other allies, such as Australia and perhaps South Korea, will need encouragement to speak up about China’s assertive actions. No single ally—not even the immensely important Japan—will be able to maintain its alliance without some compromise to its own interests. This idea of a united approach won’t be particularly appealing to many Asian capitals, but the alternative—an ever-deepening spiral of insecurity and mistrust, with its attendant risks of war—makes the concept more palatable. If ‘the best hope for amicable U.S.-China relations rests on Beijing adopting a highly restrained grand strategy,’ then our best hope lies in America uniting its Asian allies behind a common vision of Asia’s future.

Iain Henry is a Fulbright Scholar and a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. His research focuses on alliance theory and America’s alliances in Asia. Follow him on Twitter: @IainDHenry.