Center for Strategic Communication

Tensions continue to rise between China and Japan over control of a small group of islands in the East China Sea. The five uninhabited islands and three large rocks, known as Diaoyu to China and Senkaku to Japan, contain valuable oil and mineral resources, and therefore have been claimed by both the Chinese and Japanese governments. Though China and Japan have disagreed about the true ownership of these islands for decades, this dispute has intensified dramatically over the last year. Click here to view a timeline of the dispute.

The end of 2012 witnessed numerous anti-Japanese protests within China, as well as stand-offs between Chinese and Japanese Coast Guards and fishing vessels. This past December, both countries had dispatched fighter jets to monitor the movement in the area. There has also been significant economic impact from the dispute, as Japanese auto sales have plummeted in the Chinese market. The potential damage to this $340 billion trade relationship has analysts and government officials deeply concerned.

Role of the United States

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. [State Department Photo]


For months, the U.S. State Department has taken the position that it will not make assertions about the sovereignty of the islands, though it continues its support of multilateral negotiation between the nations involved. What complicates matters is the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the U.S. which would potentially compel the United States to come to its ally’s aid should an armed attack occur.

Renewed criticism of the U.S. came this past week when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton issued the following statement regarding the island dispute during a joint press conference with the Japanese Foreign Minister:

“We acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration and we urge all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means.” [January 18, 2013]

Immediately, Chinese officials condemned Clinton’s comments, with China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei saying:

“[Clinton’s comments last week] ignore facts and confuse truth with untruth,” and “We urge the US to responsibly treat the Diaoyu issue, watch their words and deeds, maintain regional stability and Sino-US relations, so that Chinese people can trust them.”

Looking ahead

The China-Japan island dispute can be considered a rapidly escalating conflict with numerous destructive elements, including:

  •     the conflicting goals, and “zero-sum mentality” held by each party
  •     the increasing potential for violence and armed aggression
  •     the increased involvement of other parties
  •     the deep-seated historical animosity that exists between the two nations.

Undoubtedly, the United States faces a significant diplomatic challenge in this complex regional dispute, and will most likely be unable to retain its official neutrality in this matter as the dispute progresses. As part of the U.S. government’s new “pivot to East Asia” policy, diplomatic officials will need to create a strategic approach to dealing with these two powerful allies. Policy analysts at the Brookings Institution recently released a memorandum to President Obama and his constituents regarding the need for immediate attention to this dispute. They advised that in the current charged environment, it would be unwise for the administration to attempt to mediate the well-established territorial disputes, or to facilitate potential resource sharing-agreements. Instead, the U.S. should focus its efforts on reducing the probability of violent clashes between the regions: in the short term to encourage the establishment of joint conflict-avoidance mechanisms and in the longer term to promote institutionalized methods such as Law of the Sea to regulate the operations of the regions’ maritime bodies.

Working with China’s new leaders to convey the benefit of multilateral cooperation on the nation’s reputation and economy would help to illustrate to these officials that it would be in China’s best interest to avoid a drawn out and potentially violent conflict over these islands. Though, as China’s outrage over Secretary Clinton’s recent comments demonstrates, the U.S. faces an uphill battle in strengthening its diplomatic relations with the PRC. With the President’s second term underway, his Administration should consider ways for the U.S. and its allies to better rise to this challenge.