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While popular attention has focused on North Korea’s extravagant and empty rhetoric, a far more dangerous conflict is brewing between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands.
Small and far from the mainland, the islands have been administered by Japan since 1895. But China also claims them and calls them the Diaoyus.
Chinese Premier Xi Jing Pin has increased the number of Chinese ships and aircraft swarming around the islands in a blatant effort to compel a change in ownership. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said Tokyo will defend its territory by force, if necessary — extraordinary language from a country that has, since World War II, refrained from anything approaching tough talk.
All of this played out as the US Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, visited Beijing, the latest in a series of US dignitaries to be upstaged by his hosts while visiting China. Dempsey gently reminded them that America is duty bound to help Japan defend its territory.
Given neither side appears to recognize the risks associated when nationalism and thousands of tons of military hardware intertwine, it’s time to defuse tensions.
Clearly, the US must back its ally, sending a reassuring signal to its other friends worldwide as it increases engagement across Asia.
Integrating US forces into Japan’s once closed air and ground planning systems signals is key, and it’s an approach that should be expanded throughout the region. Solving those problems before a crisis develops can help ensure allies are positioned to work effectively together.
More broadly, America must impress upon China that its behavior regarding the Senkakus, and other territorial disputes, including with India along its disputed border, and in the Philippines, is intolerable and is damaging its regional and global interests.
Indeed, as the drama in the Senkakus unfolded in April, a small group of Chinese soldiers marched 20 kilometers past the disputed border with India — known as the Line of Actual Control — and put up tents in the Ladakh region.
With China having alienated many of its eastern and western neighbors, now is an opportune time for Washington to propose a collective security structure mirroring NATO.
Forging any such union would be a challenge. South Korea and others remain wary of Japan, even 68 years after the end of World War II, and Taiwan and China are getting closer by the day.
But from Japan to India, and from Indonesia to Malaysia to Vietnam and the Philippines, and even in the Arctic, China is increasingly using its growing military might and economic power to try to intimidate its neighbors, rather than negotiate under international law.
It will take a united front, led by the United States and Europe, to collectively pressure Beijing into being a more cooperative neighbor.
It may be counterintuitive, but Washington’s new Asia strategy depends on the US forging closer trans-Atlantic ties. Europe, in turn, must understand that what happens in Asia at China’s hands — whether regional tensions, cyber and intellectual property theft or conflict — affects its continent as much as America’s.
China is an essential trading partner for both, and Europe and America must be willing to play the long game by methodically countering Chinese transgressions while offering incentives for better behavior.