U.S. takes neutral stand toward sovereignty over Senkaku Islands
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated during recent Japan-U.S. foreign ministerial talks that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are disputed between Japan and China.
However, her statement is far from reassuring for Japan. Article 5 applies only to “the territories under the administration of Japan.” Clinton stopped short of saying the United States recognizes the Senkaku Islands as Japan’s territories. In other words, she only repeated the U.S. position on the issue.
Chinese fishing surveillance ships are now regularly confronting Japan Coast Guard (JCG) patrol boats of the islands. China is demonstrating to Japan that it is exercising its administrative rights over the islands by dispatching government boats to the area. If the situation continues, Senkaku will no longer be subject to Article 5 of the treaty. In fact, the treaty does not apply to the Northern Territories — four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido — and the Takeshima islets, which are virtually ruled by South Korea.
If an armed conflict were to occur between JCG patrol boats and Chinese surveillance vessels off Senkaku, would U.S. forces in Japan be dispatched to the area? It is highly unlikely.
In 2005, Japan and the U.S. agreed during bilateral security talks that Japan should respond to any attack on Japanese remote islands on its own, as Ukeru Magosaki, former director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Intelligence and Analysis Bureau pointed out in a TV program.
This is the reality of the Japan-U.S. alliance. It would be too risky if Japan excessively counts on the United States for support on the issue and simply take a firm stand against China over the matter. Rather, Japan should flexibly pursue a path of compromise.
The issue of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands emerged in 1971 when Tokyo and Washington signed an agreement on the reversion of Okinawa. Under the accord, the United States returned the administrative rights over the Ryukyu Islands — including the Senkaku Islands — and the Daito Islands in Okinawa to Japan.
The Republic of China, or Taiwan — which Japan then recognized as the legitimate Chinese administration — protested the move. “Diaoyutai lieyu” (the Taiwanese name for Senkaku) is not part of the Ryukyu Islands, but historically and geographically part of Taiwan,” it said.
The People’s Republic of China, with which Japan had no diplomatic relations at the time, also claimed that the Diaoyudao (the Chinese name for the islands) is part of its territory because it is part of Taiwan.
Japan countered by arguing that the Senkaku Islands are part of Japan’s territory because they are part of the Ryukyu Islands returned from the United States.
Washington remained neutral regarding the sovereign rights over the islands. The U.S. Department of State told Tokyo at the time that any territorial dispute over the islands should be addressed by the parties concerned, noting that administrative rights and sovereignty are separate, according to the book “Post-war Japan-Taiwan relations and international laws” by the late former Taiwanese diplomat Lin Jinjing (Yuhikaku Publishing Co.).
Around the same time, Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to the U.S. president, was involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the People’s Republic of China to improve their relations.
In February 1972, President Richard Nixon paid a surprise visit to China. When the United States returned Okinawa to Japan in May of that year, it removed a nuclear missile targeting China from Okinawa to show consideration to China.
Washington is also showing its consideration to Beijing by taking a neutral position on the sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. It appears that the United States has a different face it shows only to China. (By Hidetoshi Kaneko, expert senior writer)