The simmering territorial dispute between Japan and China escalated this month when, on July 11 and 12, three Chinese vessels approached the Senkakus Islands – the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese terms – in the East China Sea and Japanese ambassador Uchiro Niwa left Beijing in protest. Tokyo believes that the islands are Japanese territory, but Beijing holds that they were discovered by the Chinese back in the XIV century and should, therefore, belong to China. The whole archipelago became Japan's asset according to the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki (the Treaty of Maguan, in the Chinese version), which was concluded, unfairly from Beijing's perspective, after Japan defeated China in the 1894-1895 war. The islands fell under the US jurisdiction in the wake of World War II and, considering Washington's alliance with Tokyo, returned to Japan by the US government in 1972.
The arrangement meets with objections from Beijing. "Any unilateral action taken by the Japanese side over the Diaoyu Islands and its affiliated islets is illegal and invalid, and will not change the fact that these islands belong to China" Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in connection with the announcement that the Japanese government considered buying the now privately-owned four of the five islands with the aim of tightening national control over them. Washington Post wrote on July 7 that the nationalization plan was unveiled by Japanese premier Yoshihiko Noda who stated that "there can be no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are part of Japanese territory, both under international law and from a historical point of view". He added that "the Senkakus are under the effective control of our nation, and there is no territorial issue with any other country over the islands".
The privately owned four islands are currently rented out for to the Japanese government by the supposed proprietor, a Japanese family which charges Tokyo $300,000 annually. Reportedly, around $16.5m have been accumulated in a Japanese bailout fund during a fund-raising campaign meant to support the nationalization.
The islands are uninhabited and, on the whole, economically useless. Until recently, the dispute over them was not audible, but Tokyo and Beijing promptly switched to tough talk when significant oil and gas deposits were discovered on the shelf of the archipelago. It should be further taken into account that for either country the right to the islands would be linked to an appreciable extension of the exclusive marine zone. September, 2010 became the watershed moment in the territorial dispute as a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese coast guard ships in the proximity of Senkakus in an incident that drew international media coverage and had serious diplomatic repercussions. In the fall of 2010, China suspended talks with Japan on the joint cultivation of gas fields in the East China Sea, while Japan constantly asserts that China is conducting illicit explorations for hydrocarbons in the part of the sea Tokyo thinks of as its own. Overall, the energy-related feud promises new rounds of tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.
Importantly, one of the Senkakus archipelago islands is being leased to the Pentagon and used as a drill site by the US forces, meaning that some form of involvement of Washington in the Japan-China dispute is imminent. Moreover, the US and Japan are partners sharing a security treaty, and US Secretary of State H. Clinton made it clear that its provisions apply to the Senkakus archipelago when the crisis peaked in the fall of 2010…
In fact, the China-Japan discord over territories is not limited to the Diaoyu-Senkakus. Japan's claims to a number of the Kuril Islands steadily grabbing the media headlines, it is not so widely known that China is constantly struggling for control over the gas and oil-rich Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea. China clashed heavily over them with Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, and it is also worth noting that the Philippines similarly count on the islands. The Spratly Islands, along with the Paracel Islands, are an epicenter of chronic tensions in the Pacific region. The relations between China and the Philippines grew strained in April when the latter dispatched patrol boats to muscle Chinese fishing ships out of the disputed Scarborough Reef region, and the former dispatched its navy to help the fishermen. Further complicating the situation, the Scarborough incident coincided in time with a military exercise conducted by the US and the Philippines, which included a landing operation with the goal of brushing armed militants off the island. Washington immediately sided with the Philippines in the conflict, with US Secretary of State H. Clinton saying: “We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines” and expressing concern that incidents like the above could undermine peace and stability in the region.
Lacking domestic oil and gas reserves, China has to rely heavily on coal as an energy source. The share of coal in China's energy cocktail currently makes 60%, which is a huge problem for the environment, and reducing the coal input into the energy balance to the 28% global average would require that the country additionally procure 8 million barrels of crude daily. The population growth in China automatically translates into greater energy demand. The net result is that getting a hold of energy fields worldwide (even in the Arctic zone, claims to which, if staked by China, sound absolutely ridiculous) is a top priority on China's foreign policy agenda.
At the same time, Japan is an overpopulated country and, as such, is keenly interested in potential territorial gains. Natural disasters, along with the recent technological one, cause the Japanese government to become hyperactive in this regard, and Washington deliberately fuels Tokyo's territorial appetites.
The November, 2011 issue of Foreign Policy featured a lengthy opinion piece by H. Clinton titled America's Pacific Century, where she argued that “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action”. The deployment of US military bases in Darwin, in Australia's Northern Territories, showed that the creed is being actively put into practice. Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told that by 2020 the lion's share of the US naval might would relocate to the Pacific region. These days, it is split evenly between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, but the proportion will be reset to 60% vs. 40% by the end of the decade. The US Pacific navy will include six aircraft carriers, plus more submarines and cruisers than elsewhere, while US naval bases and training centers will proliferate across Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines. A US strategic hub will pop up on Guam Island to which Washington plans to shift a part of the US marines contingent currently stationed on Japan's Okinawa. Simon Tisdall from Great Britain's The Guardian notes that the Asia Pacific strategy adopted by the Obama Administration is attributable to the “China syndrome” known to be strong in the White House.
The Chinese military buildup visibly worries Washington. A 2009 Rand Corporation report said that the US would be no longer able to protect Taiwan by 2020 as by the time Beijing will outgun the US in the Taiwan Strait even if Washington maintains two aircraft-carrying groups with fifth-generation fighters in the region. The Chinese defense budget is already the world's second-biggest and far exceeds in proportions other Asia Pacific countries. A projection by IHS Global Insight released in February estimated the Chinese military spending by the end of 2015 at $238.2b, an amount twice as large as today's total. Beijing's military budget has grown by 11.5% in 2012 and reached $104.62b.
It is a straightforward guess in this light that Washington will be using Japan as a kind of a frontier force against China and Russia. The trend is already manifest: the US Department of State occasionally sided with Tokyo over the Kuril Islands or, implicitly, encouraged Japan's pushiness in the brawl over the Senkakus–Diaoyu Islands. On November 1, 2010, US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Philip Crawley backed the territorial ambitions harbored in Tokyo and referred to the Kuril Islands as Japanese Northern territories. The statement was made four days after H. Clinton voiced, in the presence of Japanese foreign minister Seiji Maehara, support for Tokyo over the Senkakus–Diaoyu archipelago, saying that “the Senkaku Islands would fall within the scope of the application of Article 5 of the bilateral security treaty” and pledging to defend Japan based on the agreement. Somewhat earlier, in October, 2010, US Defense Secretary R. Gates and his Japanese colleague Toshimi Kitazawa confirmed that "their countries will jointly respond in line with a bilateral security pact toward stability in areas in the East China Sea covering the Senkaku Islands that came into the spotlight in disputes between Japan and China”.
Locked in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US largely overlooked the breakneck rise of China and currently has to stage a Pacific comeback to contain it. Hastily putting together an anti-Chinese alliance in East Asia and fostering Sinophobia among China's neighbors, Washington keeps Beijing under pressure and drags it into a confrontation to the point of provoking an armed conflict. With all its dovish rhetoric in public diplomacy, the US increasingly makes war a realistic scenario, and chances are a war is what the Washington hawks eager to crash China before it turns into a military superpower on pars with the US actually want.