The World

Small Islands, Big Problem

Anti-Japanese protesters are confronted by police as they demonstrate over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, on Sept. 16, 2012, in Shenzhen, China. 

Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

It’s safe to say that of the issues I was interested in learning about on my first visit to China, the country’s territorial dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea was pretty low on the list. The long-simmering dispute over the islands known as the Diaoyus in China and the Senkakus in Japan—I’m just going to refer to them as “the islands” from here on—is one of those international issues that seems absurdly arcane to Americans, despite the passions it arouses in the region.

But in meeting after meeting here, with government officials, businesspeople, and think tankers, my group was given nearly identical disquisitions on why China has a historical right to the islands and how the U.S. government and media are hopelessly biased toward the Japanese position. Interestingly to me, this continued in Hong Kong. Anger over Japan’s claim to the islands seems to be a rare issue that unites mainlanders, Hong Kongers, and even the Taiwanese.

The official U.S. government position on the islands, as expressed recently by Secretary of State John Kerry, is that Washington recognizes that the islands are “under Japan’s administration but doesn’t take a stand on their ultimate sovereignty.” This is a position that won’t really make either side happy, but particularly irritates China, which sees it as a betrayal of a wartime ally.

During our week in China, several people we spoke with were particularly incensed by a Wall Street Journal editorial calling on the U.S. government to fully back Japan’s position on the islands. (The distinction between the position of the Journal’s editorial page and the Obama administration’s foreign policy goals seems to have been somewhat lost.)

The fact that the U.S. is reluctantly a player in this conflict is somewhat its own fault. Both sides cite treaties signed with the United States after World War II to support their respective positions. China points to the 1943 Cairo statement issued by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek, which declared that following World War II, Japan would return all the islands it had “stolen from the Chinese.” According to China, this includes the islands in qusetion, which Japan seized along with Taiwan during the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894–1895. (Japan disputes that the islands were under Chinese control in the first place.)

Japan, meanwhile, points to the 1951 peace treaty it signed with the United States, which put Okinawa and its surrounding islands under U.S. administration. Administration of these islands was returned to Japan in 1972. It should be noted that none of these treaties mentions the islands specifically. Tensions over them emerged far more recently. Further complicating matters, the U.S. has stated that the islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan mutual defense agreement.  

There really isn’t an upside to the U.S. taking a strong position on the issue. Though as became clear to me this week, whatever happens, Washington is likely to take the blame for it.