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In his 1909 book “The Great Illusion,” Sir Norman Angell argued that war between Europe’s Great Powers was futile, because their economic interdependence made warfare too costly for all involved. Just five years later, Europe would be plunged into a tragic war that would devastate a whole generation of young men.
Today, the world faces an eerily similar situation in the eastern Pacific Ocean. East Asian economies, buoyed by the rapid growth of China, are flourishing. Trade is booming as old protectionist barriers are thrown down. Yet despite this prosperity, diplomatic relations in the region are increasingly tense.
The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China), a group of islets in the East China Sea, have become the center of an increasingly heated territorial dispute between China and Japan. The islands are barren, uninhabited rocks in the middle of the ocean—yet they could be the fuse in the East Asian powder keg.
For years, China and Japan have jockeyed over their claims to the islands. In December 2012, China sent a reconnaissance plane over the islands; in response, Japan scrambled F-15 fighter jets. On November 23, 2013, China announced it would begin enforcing an air defense identification zone around its maritime boundaries, which included the Senkaku Islands. Just three days later, the United States flew two B-52 bombers through the zone, sparking Chinese outrage.
In China, Japan’s claim over the islands is seen as a vestige of old imperialist aggression, dating back to the Second Sino-Japanese War. In Japan, China’s claim is seen as a sign of renewed Chinese expansionism.
At this point, too much rhetorical blood has been spilled—backing down would be politically impossible for either China or Japan, even though war would devastate the economies of both parties. Abe’s nationalist policies appeal to his power base, the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party. China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, has declared the islands a “core interest;” a concession in this area would be seen as a loss of face.
That’s why a third party, a strong hand with a good diplomatic track record and a vested interest in stability, should enter the situation. In a word, an assertive American foreign policy would help calm the turbulent waters of the East China Sea.
America should caution its ally Japan to tone down the rhetoric. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has damaged relations with China by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial where 14 Japanese war criminals are buried. A moratorium on such visits would be a good start. Despite rearmament, Japan remains dependent on American military support, and would surely acquiesce to sufficient diplomatic pressure.
At the same time, China should be sharply rebuked for its increasing displays of militarism. Displays of force, like the B-52 bomber flight, only remind China that it remains militarily outmatched by the United States. In exchange for a cooling of the rhetoric around the Senkaku Islands and a freeze on military escalation around the islands, the United States could privately offer concessions like respecting the rest of the air defense zone and reducing the number of military exercises near China’s maritime borders.
Once heads have cooled, China and Japan could take their dispute to a neutral third party, like the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Such mediating bodies have a decent track record—Chile and Peru recently negotiated an end to a long-standing maritime dispute through the court.
After the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans across the political spectrum are surely reluctant to see their nation again entangle itself in foreign affairs. But America is needed abroad; its presence is a vital column in the edifice of international order. And indeed, being assertive in support of international stability does not mean being a warmonger. History bears this out: A strong American military presence in Asia has kept South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan secure, and the U.S. Navy has kept the sea free and open, facilitating the present boom in trade. Even China has much reason to thank the United States, for helping to maintain stability in the countries that are now its major trading partners.
War in Asia would serve no one’s interests—not America’s, not Asia’s, and least of all China’s and Japan’s. By pushing Japan and China into reasoned negotiations and, in a sense, taking the blame from both sides, the United States could allow both countries to back off from this meaningless squabble while saving face. Although the resurgent nationalists in Japan and China would not like to admit it, the United States remains indispensable in Asia.
Oliver W. Kim ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator living in Leverett House.
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