China and Japan are making a mountain of a molehill in their territorial dispute over a group of tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku (in Japan) or the Diaoyu (in China). Whatever their name, they're basically just a bunch of rocks sticking out of the water; the largest is less than two miles square.
Yet they've become the flash point for an increasingly shrill confrontation between Asia's two economic giants that has threatened to disrupt their $340 billion trade relationship and even prompted talk of war. Both sides have dispatched naval vessels to the area. The U.S. needs to immediately use its good offices to nudge both sides back from the brink before things get out of hand.
China and Japan base their respective claims on various historical records going back a century or more. (Taiwan, which broke away from mainland China in 1948, has lodged a separate claim of sovereignty.) Japan points to the 1895 treaty that ended the first Sino-Japanese War as the 19th century drew to a close. China, meanwhile, rests its case on a 16th- century Ming Dynasty document that lists the islands among the emperor's most prized possessions. Both sides rely on inconclusive and ambivalent evidence of the kind that should be referred to the International Court of Justice at the Hague for adjudication, not decided by gunboat diplomacy.
Oddly enough, in modern times neither side made much effort to press the issue of sovereignty until 1971, when the U.S. finally withdrew the last of its troops that had occupied the islands since the end of World War II. That change coincided with the discovery of potentially rich oil and gas reserves in waters surrounding the area, a development that reignited the old quarrel over the islands' status, and which was complicated by the fact that the U.S. gave the islands back to Japan when it left. But after China and Japan resumed normal diplomatic relations in the 1970s, both countries agreed to set the issue aside as a matter for future generations to negotiate.
And there it remained for nearly four decades as China and Japan proceeded to develop the robust trade relationship they enjoy today. Today, China is Japan's largest trading partner, and Japan is China's second-largest trading partner after the U.S. Japanese companies have invested billions of dollars in China and directly or indirectly employ millions of workers there. A clash over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is the last thing either country needs.
It's unclear why the islands recently have re-emerged as an item of contention, but observers cite China's growing military strength and assertiveness in the region as one factor, coupled with leadership transitions in both countries that have contributed to increased political uncertainty over the future. Moreover, at a time when China's once sizzling growth rate has slowed and Japan is experiencing declining wages and living standards, politicians in both nations have found ways to deflect attention away from their country's economic woes using nationalist appeals.
Such appeals are still potent, especially in China, where resentment of Japan's brutal invasion and occupation of the country during World War II is still keenly felt. In Japan, nationalist feelings are more likely to center on the loss of prestige associated with being overtaken as the world's second largest economy and fears that an economically and militarily stronger China will be emboldened to demand greater territorial concessions in the future.
As a result, both sides have been pushed to escalate a confrontation from which neither feels it can easily back down. In the wake of violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in cities across China that temporarily forced some companies there to close, Japanese officials have beefed up coastal patrols around the islands. Meanwhile China has dispatched its fishing fleet and naval cutters to the area and plans to use drones to patrol the islands. Given the rising tensions in the region, it's not unthinkable that a conflict could break out through miscalculation by either side.
That's not something we can trust to luck not to happen. The U.S. is the only country that can act as an honest broker to ratchet down tensions, and it must assume that role soon to prevent events from spinning out of control. The idea of a war between Asia's two economic powerhouses (which happen to be major U.S. trading partners as well) would be a disaster for American policy in the region, which is why our diplomats need get on the case while they still can.