China Is Crossing A Red Line over the Senkaku Islands: VI. Options for the United States

We should understand that the application of the Security Treaty over the Senkaku Islands does not automatically and unconditionally guarantees the dispatch of the U.S. forces or the war between the United States and China. In order to improve the predictability, I would like to represent some examples of the action possibly taken by the U.S. government when the Article 5 of the Security Treaty is applied to a contingency over the Senkaku Islands.

# Issue statements that the United States support Japan and accuse China.

# Veto Beijing’s proposal to adopt the U.N. Security Council resolutions in favor of China. (Instead, the U.S. efforts to adopt resolutions criticizing China will meet its veto.)

# Propose to mediate between Japan and China.

# Increase military presence of the U.S. Forces Japan, including additional dispatch of aircraft carriers and/or strategic bombers.

# Pose minor sanction against China such as the limitation of human exchange.

# Share the intelligence on the Chinese military with the SDF.

# Permit the SDF to use the U.S. bases in Japan.

# Pose moderate sanction against China such as the partial limitation of trade and investment.

# Pose considerable sanction against China such as the ban of dollar settlement for the Chinese banks.

# Provide logistical support to the SDF by the USFJ.

# Combat with the PLA in the East China Sea.

# Combat with the PLA in wider theater.

The United States had a similar experience at a time of the Falkland War in 1982. It was a territorial war between the two important allies of the United States, the United Kingdom and Argentina. President Ronald Reagan finally sided with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But it would be wrong to make a naïve analogy. Actually, the Senkakus contingency will be far more difficult for the U.S. government to deal with.

You can just compare the geography and the technology between the Falkland War and the Senkakus contingency. In 1982, it took three weeks for the British fleet to arrive in the battle field. Reagan instructed Secretary of State Alexander Haig to use that lead time for mediating a ceasefire. In case of the Senkakus contingency, the coast guards and militaries of both Japan and China are already there, and Tokyo and Beijing can reinforce them in a matter of days or weeks. In case of the Falkland War, the U.S. administration did not have to worry about Argentina’s attacking the United States when it decided to support the U.K. Buenos Aires lacked such capabilities and the U.S. homeland was too far apart to attack. In case of the Senkakus contingency, we all know China already has missiles and nuclear weapons covering the Japanese Archipelago, as well as the U.S. Forces Japan.

Because the choices the U.S. government will have to make at the Senkakus contingency will be very complicated, it is hard to tell what kind of choice Washington will actually make. But following five points can be pointed out.

First, how the conflict over the Senkaku Islands begins will influence the response of the United States. If Japan attacks first, or if the clash starts by accident, the U.S. may not take a strong position to support Japan. To the contrary, if China unilaterally sends its military to the islands and tries to invade them, Washington will be pressured to counteract more resolutely.

Second, the U.S. would vary options with the change of the war situation. For example, Washington may want to refrain from overt U.S. military intervention and leave the fighting to Japan, if the conflict is limited in space and time, and the situation is favorable to Japan. On the contrary, if cornered China tries to launch missiles to Japan’s homeland, Washington may need to act more forcibly to deter further Chinese aggression. If it does not act, the United States will be seen as intimidated by China to abandon one of its most important allies.

Third, the United States will have to analyze the repercussion of its behavior not only on China but also on Japan. If Tokyo is too confident of the U.S. military intervention, or if Beijing does not worry about the U.S. intervention at all, either one of them may run the risk of escalating the situation especially when put in inferior position in the battle. Washington is likely to maintain ambiguity even if it decides to assist Japan or keep neutrality.

Fourth, the United States will, as it did in the Falkland War, very strongly urge both Japan and China to stop fighting. It will almost certainly do so, whichever side Washington decides to support. In 1982, the U.S. government tried to balance between the two capitals during the whole process of the war. Initially, the U.S. government tried to mediate a ceasefire and a solution of territorial problem. Washington tried to save loser’s face even after the United States decided to officially support the United Kingdom and Argentine defeat was made clear to everyone’s eyes.

And finally, it is highly unlikely that the United States takes the hard options described near the bottom of the list. Although there is a certain risk of China and/or Japan making that stupid action, being driven by the force of nationalism, making war and risking soldiers’ lives over the tiny and resource-poor islands is simply ridiculous for every sober party.

There is no doubt that the Japan-U.S. alliance is valuable in checking Chinese provocation over the Senkaku Islands. But the effect of its deterring China is no more satisfactory. Japan and the United States should send more resolute signal to China now, otherwise we will have to pay the heavier cost in the future. For example, the United States should consider admitting the territorial right of Japan over the Senkaku Islands. This may sound like a deviation from the U.S. general policy on the territorial issues of other countries. But the United States has long admitted Japan’s territorial right on the four islands of Northern Territory against Russia. By admitting Japan’s territorial right, the United States may able to discourage China from challenging the status quo. (For its part, Japan should send more aggressive signal to China as I proposed in the previous post.)

While deterring Beijing’s use of force, buying time until China weakens as a result of declining and aging population will be one of the strategic options for Japan and the United States. Whether weak China means modest China, however, is a heavy bet.

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