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How Should Japan Persuade Strategic Value of Senkakus to Americans?

Posted on the 13 December 2012 by Shahalexander

The Senkaku clash between Japan and China draws worldwide attention. This is not just a disagreement on territorial sovereignty but an issue of sea lane security and offshore resource. America ambiguity on Senkakus is a problem. In view of Chinese maritime expansionism, the Senkaku Islands is a Rhineland against Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Remember British Prime Minister-then Margaret Thatcher warned of Saddam Hussein’s megalomaniac ambition to President-then George H. W. Bush, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Therefore, it is compellingly crucial to examine whether Japan persuades strategic value of the Senkaku Islands to the American public and policymakers successfully or not.


Actually some Americans are reluctant to get involved deeply in the Senkaku clash, though understanding the threat of Chinese expansionism. James Holmes, Associate Professor at US Naval War College, compares such psychology with Athenian position when the Peloponnesian War broke out (“Thucydides, Japan and America”; Diplomat; November 27, 2012). Referring to “The Chronicle of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides, Holmes points out perception gaps between a stronger partner and a weaker partner within the alliance. While a weaker ally wants to make use of power of the alliance hegemony as much as possible to maximize its national interests, a stranger ally does not want to run the risk of confronting the challenger. In the case of the Peloponnesian War, Corcyra asked Athens for help in their conflict with Corinth. As the hegemon of the Delos League, Athens sent warships to accompany the Corcyraean navy, but forbade them to fight against Corinthians unless they face imminent danger. Athenians were afraid of direct confrontation with Sparta, the archrival and the head of the Peloponnesian League. If the attitude is so ambiguous like Athens, Japan may be tempted to act independently, even though the United States is dragged into the Sino-Japanese clash unwillingly. The result of it simply undermines mutual trust between Japan and the United States. Ancient pundits show insightful lessons to present day strategists.
In view of fatal consequence of such halfway commitment, some American media urge the Obama administration to articulate the position to support Japan. Japan has not resort to violence in any territorial disputes with its neighbors like Russia and South Korea, in addition to China. The Christian Science Monitor argues furthermore that nuanced restraint of the Obama administration’s neutrality on Senkaku sovereignty while admitting Japanese administrative authority, can trigger Chinese adventurism as in the case of Saddam Hussein’s invasion to Kuwait (“US must clearly back Japan in islands dispute with China”; Christian Science Monitor; October 25, 2012). Also, the Washington Free Beacon criticizes the Obama administration’s impartial approach to the Sino-Japanese territorial disputes, while General Xu Caiho, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, remarked that China be ready for possible war with Japan on September 14. This online newspaper blames that Obama fails to support key allies in East Asia in view of China’s aggressive maritime expansionism (“The Great Pacific Panic”; Washington Free Beacon; December 6, 2012). There is no wonder that the Senate passed a resolution to back Japan about Senkakus on November 30.
However, some Americans are still reluctant to confront China for the sake of “tiny” dots on the map. How should the Japanese side persuade strategic implications of the Senkaku clash to Americans and the global community successfully? Japanese policymakers need to think of effective media campaign to appeal legitimacy of Japanese territorial claim, the thereat of Chinese expansionism, and strategic value of the Senkaku Islands. For this purpose, Japan must choose the right media and stress right focal points. Let me mention two cases. When Hitoshi Tanaka, Former Deputy Minister of Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave a lecture entitled “Japan: Bridging East Asia with the Rest of the World” at Chatham House on September 12, he did not mention navy build up by China, sea lane security for East Asian nations, and natural resource disputes involved in the East and the South China Sea Though he raised critical concerns with Chinese nationalism, his emphasis on Sino-Japanese mutual economic interdependence may have obscured the danger of Chinese hegemonic instinct as remarked by Xu Caiho. It is a pity that Tanaka failed to harness such a good opportunity to send Japanese messages from a venerable and prestigious medium. See the text and the video below.

On the other hand, Yasuhiro Kawamura, Deputy Chief of Mission at New York Consulate of Japan, articulated Japanese position on Senkaku when he appeared a local TV program of New York “Inside City Hall” on October 11 this year. Kawamura explained Japan’s legitimacy from legal and historical points. Legally, Japan conducted the first research of these islands in 1885 ahead of any other nations. Those islands were uninhabited without administrative control of the Qing China. China did not object to Japanese sovereignty until oil reserve was found. In reply to a question to belittle importance of “tiny” islands, Kawamura asserted that territory is a key component of the state. I am in full respect of clear and persuasive arguments by Kawamura. However, it is questionable whether Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs chose the right medium. It seems that Errol Louis, Anchorman of this program, does not understand territorial issue, as he mentioned Senkakus, remote islands, and the size of a room or even a double bed. The tone he spoke in the program sounded so easy going as if he were talking about entertainment news. He even called Kawamura by the wrong title “Ambassador”. See the video below.

In addition to successful media strategy, I have to mention concerns with the rise of nationalism among the Japanese public that could worsen Japan’s impression in the global community. This will ruin any kind of efforts that Japan has ever made. In view of growing military pressure from China and defense cuts of the United States, Japan is exploring multilateral strategic partnership with Asia Pacific nations. The United States welcomes Japan’s active role in defense to prevent Chinese expansionism (“Japan Is Flexing Its Military Muscle to Counter a Rising China”; New York Times; November 26, 2012). However, Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University shows concerns with growing clash of nationalism between Japan and China stemming from mutual hatred. Nye does not see any danger of Japanese return to past militarism as current Self Defense Force is under tight civilian control, despite provocative remarks by rightwing populists like Sintaro Ishihara and Toru Hashimoto. What makes him worried is the rise of overconfidence among the Chinese public which makes increasingly inward looking Japanese people more anxious of Japanese decline. (“Japan’s nationalism is a sign of weakness”; Financial Times; November 27, 2012) Such a spiral of self-interested mutual hatred with China can move the United States away from Japan, and lead it to an Athenian ambiguity at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.
In order to persuade the United States and its allies in Asia and Europe, Japan should not talk from narrow sighted national interest, but from global public interest. Also, Japan should tell the United States that an Athenian ambiguity on Senkakus is a superpower suicide. Japan needs to learn lessons from Margaret Thatcher’s successful approach to persuade George H. W. Bush over Saddam Hussein’s invasion to Kuwait. Furthermore, Japanese policymakers must shed the Edwin Reischauer complex. He must have been a great ambassador to bridge Japan and America, but fluency in Japanese and deep understanding of Japanese culture is not necessarily vital. Rather, Japanese leaders should explore ties with American strategists who are critically concerned with Chinese expansionism, like the military, neoconservatives, and freedom advocates.

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