The Role For The U.S. In The East China Sea Dispute

The Senkaku Islands, as they are called in Japan, sit in a strategic location between Okinawa and Taiwan. i i

The Senkaku Islands, as they are called in Japan, sit in a strategic location between Okinawa and Taiwan. Matt Stiles/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Stiles/NPR
The Senkaku Islands, as they are called in Japan, sit in a strategic location between Okinawa and Taiwan.

The Senkaku Islands, as they are called in Japan, sit in a strategic location between Okinawa and Taiwan.

Matt Stiles/NPR

The dispute between Japan and China over small islands in the East China Sea is escalating. The two nations first dispatched unarmed vessels to stake their claims, then patrol boats, and then, unarmed aircraft.

Most recently, both countries sent fighter jets to the islands — known as the Senkaku in Japan, and the Diaoyu in China. The islands are uninhabited, but sit in a strategic location between Japan and Taiwan.

On a recent visit to China, Joseph Nye, former chair of the National Intelligence Council, heard officials there describe this dispute in the context of Cold War containment policy. In a piece in The New York Times, he explains that the U.S. efforts in the region are seen as part of a campaign by the United States and its allies to isolate China and restrict its navy's access to the Pacific Ocean.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The dispute between Japan and China over small islands in the East China Sea is escalating. The two nations first dispatched unarmed vessels to stake their claims, then patrol boats. Unarmed aircraft came next. Most recently both sent fighter jets over the islands. The Senkakus, as they're called in Japan, are uninhabited but set in a strategic location between Okinawa and Taiwan. If you'd like to see exactly where they're situated, you can go to our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

On a recent visit to China, Joseph Nye heard officials there describe the dispute in the context of containment. Part of what they see is a campaign by the United States and its allies to isolate China and restrict its navy's access to the Pacific. Joseph Nye is a university distinguished professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He served as assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. His op-ed "Work with China, Don't Contain It" ran in The New York Times over the weekend. He joins us now on a smartphone from his office in Cambridge. Nice to have you back with us.

JOSEPH NYE: Nice to be back with you.

CONAN: And you cited a recent article in The Economist which warned that this dispute could spiral into war.

NYE: Well, there is some danger. I don't think either side, Japan or China, wants to have this lead to a war. There's always a danger that something can take place locally that can get out of hand. For example, in 2010 a Chinese fishing trawler bashed into a Japanese coast guard cutter off the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu, as the Chinese call them, and that led to a series of actions which eventually meant China embargoed rare-earth exports to Japan, and that turned Japanese opinion very much against China.

It turns out that that fishing trawler captain who bashed into the Japanese coast guard cutter didn't do it on orders from Beijing. He was drunk. So the great danger is that some pilot or some ship captain cuts things a little too close, and before you know it the governments are caught up in a set of interactions tit for tat that goes beyond where they want to be.

CONAN: And you were, as we mentioned, recently in Beijing, where officials were saying this is part of the containment policy. The United States' pivot to Asia is a blatant attempt to, well, contain China, and China, they say, cannot be contained.

NYE: Well, there is a tendency of the Chinese to see American policy as containment, but the - but President Obama has said that his pivot or rebalancing toward Asia is not containment, that what he is trying to do is not just look at this in military terms but also in trade terms and cooperation in other areas like energy and environment. And what's more, if you look at containment back in the old Cold War days, when we were - had a policy of containment towards the Soviet Union, there were no Soviet students to speak of in the United States.

There are 150,000 Chinese students in the United States today. We had virtually no trade with the Soviet Union. And today we have not only massive trade, but a trade deficit with China. So this is not your grandfather's containment.

CONAN: Yet if you were a Chinese admiral sitting there on the coast and looking out to sea and trying to figure out how to get your navy into the Pacific, all you could see was a series of islands from Japan in the north, all the way down to Australia, all United States allies, all controlling chokepoints that would prevent you from sending those vessels to sea.

NYE: Well, if you're talking about a war, that's problem. But let's hope we're not going to get into a warlike situation. One of the things I recommended in that New York Times op-ed was that we should start talking to the Chinese about their global role, including the role of their navy in protecting sea lines for the oil that they're going to import increasingly from the Middle East, whereas our imports of oil from Middle East are probably going to decline in the next decade.

After all, right now, we and the Chinese and other nations cooperate off the coast of Somalia in combating piracy. And in the last year the incidents of piracy have gone down.

CONAN: We're talking with Joseph Nye about an article that he wrote recently for The New York Times. You can find a link to that at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you were, again, talking about the situation with China. But as they look at those oil lines, those lines of supply from the Middle East, they run through the South China Sea. And again, it is China that's - well, from the point of view of its neighbors - bullying them and trying to claim total sovereignty over an enormous stretch of water, which may have enormous deposits of oil and gas underneath it.

NYE: Well, the Chinese have inherited - the Chinese communist government has inherited from the previous nationalist government, a map which has nine dashes; it's called the nine dash line, which looks like there's a deep pocket that encompasses the whole South China Sea. Now, the Philippines and Vietnam and Malaysia and others don't agree with that.

What China has in this - and a little bit ambiguous as to whether they're claiming the sea or just some of the islands in the sea - the problem is along with the islands go the underwater resources. So China has not been totally clear about this, but it does have this large claim. And one of the problems for China is that it's worsened its relations with its neighbors by doing this. So China's going to have to come up with a clearer strategy on its own part if it's going to be able to deal with these issues with its neighbors.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller on this conversation. Pete is on the line with us from Berkeley.

PETE: Hi. Thanks for the opportunity. Yeah, I want to invoke history here because I was reading David McCullough's book "The Path Between the Seas," about the Panama Canal and the pre-canal period, and so the United States and Great Britain had come close to war over Nicaragua prior to the Gold Rush. A crisis was averted by a treaty specifically binding the U.S. and Great Britain to joint control of any canal at Nicaragua, or by implication anywhere else in Central America.

And it goes out to say it turned out really great for the U.S. because they got all these other concessions along with this deal. So I'm just - it's interesting to hear about the underwater rights, so those seem to be very tangible. The rest is symbolic. But I just want to get this out there. It's, hey, what about joint control and some kind of cooperation agreement?

CONAN: Joseph Nye?

NYE: Well, I think it would be useful for Japan and China, actually, to proceed ahead with an agreement, which they signed in 2008, to do joint exploration of some of the gas fields that lie under the East China Sea, near the line between the two countries' territorial claims. And I think also an interesting idea would be for Japan, which claims sovereignty over the Senkakus, to say, yes, we claim that we have sovereignty but we'll devote them to being a maritime preserve so that six square kilometers of rocks don't become militarized. So I think there maybe some cooperative resolutions there if we try hard enough.

PETE: Thank you.

CONAN: And the United States says it has no - don't have a dog in this fight. It has no determination as to which of those countries' claims over the Senkakus or the Diaoyus, as the Chinese called them, is correct. But on the other hand, United States has a treaty to defend Japan.

NYE: Yes. Well, what we, United States, says is that back in 1890s, we don't take a position on who hit whom first on the origins of this dispute. If they want to dispute that, what we call ancient history, they should take it to the International Court of Justice.

But in 1972, when the United States handed Okinawa back to Japan, the Senkakus were then part of the territory that we handed back. We'd occupied this whole area at the end of World War II in 1945. So we argue that the Senkakus are covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty even though (technical difficulty) we don't have a position on the ancient history. So we're neutral on the ancient history (technical difficulty) in '72, which is (technical difficulty).

CONAN: And we're - we just have about a minute or so left, but I wondered if you'd seen a way forward, speaking with those Chinese officials, about a way to resolve the disputes over the South China Sea. United States would like them all to be handled at the same time. The Chinese say no, we'll do it one at a time. And the various neighbors saying we don't want to do it one at a time because China is too powerful.

NYE: Well, what we've said is that we'd like to see these disputes settled peacefully through negotiations, and we've urged the Chinese to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a code of conduct, something which would help. At one point the Chinese looked like they would do that. Then after 2009, they seemed to have the bit in their teeth and they wanted to do more of this bilaterally. I think it would be in China's own interest not to do this in - I mean to change their way of doing things.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

CONAN: Our smartphones are betraying us, but thank you very much, Joseph Nye, for being with us today. The line sounded wonderful. There's somebody calling you there, undoubtedly to tell you that they can hear you on the radio.

(LAUGHTER)

NYE: On a landline. That's modern technology.

CONAN: There you go. Thanks very much.

NYE: Nice to be with you again.

CONAN: Nice to speak with you. Joseph Nye with us from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, former chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, with us by smartphone, as we mentioned, from his office in Cambridge. You can find a link to that op-ed on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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