Strategic Responses to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute

By Shirley Xu
Contributing Writer

If tension between China and Japan continues to escalate over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, the United States is obligated to support Japan in the event of armed conflict due to the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty. War against China is a highly unfavorable outcome for the United States; however, repeated public statements by U.S. officials, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have indicated firm recognition of Japanese administration of the islands, as well as reassurance that the United States will honor the treaty in the event of direct Chinese aggression. This could very well draw the United States into a regional conflict between China and Japan.

Analysis of current and past diplomatic situations between China, Japan and the United States, along with existing strategies taken in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute reveal a common aversion to war despite repeated escalation and aggressive signaling by China. Due to thriving Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japanese economic ties, as well as recent efforts by the United States to create strong defense and development alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, it is in the best interest of all parties involved for Japan and China to seek a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

While the United States has historically remained neutral regarding sovereignty of the islands, it plays an essential role in preventing the possible outbreak of war between China and Japan. Three potential strategies for the United States to avert fighting come to mind:

1. Appeasement of China with weak signaling and persuasion of Japan to relinquish claims.
2. Adherence to the defense treaty with Japan, no direct militarization of U.S. forces and public militarization of Japanese forces to form a trip-wire defense.
3. Adherence to the defense treaty with Japan, public announcement of commitment to a full-scale war in response to escalation and coercion of Japan and China to refer the case to an international court.

Despite its potential for extreme escalation, the third strategy is proposed as the ideal strategy due to its resolute execution, high stakes and greater probability of quickly reaching a peaceful consensus.

Background of Problem

The Senkaku/Diaoyu are a string of eight small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Japan currently administers the islands, which straddle strategically important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and may contain vast oil deposits. Although tensions between Japan, China and Taiwan over the disputed territories have spiked periodically since the mid-1990s, they reached dangerous levels in the last year. In September 2012, the Japanese government attempted to ease tensions by nationalizing the islands from a private owner to prevent an attempt by Japanese nationalists to purchase the islands. However, China insisted that the move grossly violated its sovereignty and reacted by encouraging anti-Japanese protests and escalating military mobilization.

Beijing asserts that China’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are based on geography, historical occupation and international law. China claims that the islands were discovered and named in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and placed under the jurisdiction of Taiwan Province during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Despite these assertions, however, China never established permanent settlement of the region nor maintained naval forces in the adjacent waters. In fact, China only began to lay claims on the islands after the speculation of oil reserves in the region arose. Japan’s claim to the islands goes back to their annexation in 1895 in the aftermath of the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the First Sino-Japanese War. Prior to annexation, the islands were uninhabited and showed no signs of Chinese control. Meanwhile, China also insists that while Allied declarations at Cairo and Potsdam during World War II made clear intentions to return the islands to China, Japan and the United States “illegally” prevented proper transferring of the islands’ administration in the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 and the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971.

The U.S. government has historically taken a neutral position in the territorial disputes. However, it also has been U.S. policy since 1972 that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands fall under Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The treaty guarantees the protection of Japan in exchange for the right to station U.S. troops—which currently number around 50,000—in dozens of bases throughout the Japanese archipelago. The inclusion of the islands in the Okinawa Reversion Treaty made the security treaty applicable to the islands. In the event of a significant armed conflict with either China or Taiwan, Japan likely expects the U.S. to honor its treaty obligations.


United States

Logically, war is the least favorable outcome for all parties. The United States cannot escalate against China and successfully achieve the ideal result of Japanese sovereignty of Senkaku at the same time without committing to an unrestricted war. While potential gains of spearheading the winning side of such a war are equally great, waging a devastating war is by no means the best option. However, due to a binding treaty that compels the United States to defend Japan, the United States has already repeatedly signaled in public to China its willingness to respond with escalation in the event of further Chinese provocation. By accumulating significant audience costs, the abandonment of the United States’ defense obligation to Japan is unlikely . Thus, if China escalates, the United States has no choice but to escalate as well. While escalation is the best response for the United States to Chinese provocation in the conflict, war is the least ideal conclusion because of the aforementioned potential for extreme escalation as well as the likely destruction of essential economic and diplomatic interests in the Asia-Pacific. Rather than escalate for the sake of fighting a war, the United States should use escalation as a means to broker peace.

For the United States, the islands at the center of the dispute offer little benefit. While the presence of oil in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and surrounding seas has been a point of interest in this dispute, sources show an amount too insignificant to logically warrant such drama between Japan and China , let alone the intervention of the United States. While the Japanese and Chinese view the disputed territories as important, they do so through a symbolic lens centered on national pride. Although the United States must escalate to honor its treaty obligations, it will not use escalation as a catalyst for direct warfare, but rather for the prevention of it.


For Japan, war bears great costs, with a limited chance of ideal payoffs. If the United States were to fully devote its resources to the conflict, Japan stands to make significant economic and political gains. But the potential for the drastic escalation of the war to a scale outside of the current players creates complications with which the Japanese are not equipped to handle. In the event of limited or no U.S. assistance, the Japanese military stands no chance of successfully defending against invading Chinese forces. Additionally, Japan risks losing U.S. support if its ambitions lead it to instigate warfare in reaction to China’s salami tactics. Although it is one of the key players in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, Japan has very little influence over the potential outcome of the game.


On the coattails of steady economic growth, China stands to prevail over Japan if the two countries were to go to war with each other. China invests heavily in its military and exerts steady military pressure on the region. Strangely, however, China makes no mention of the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty in public discussions of the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, despite its repeated criticisms of U.S. involvement in the Asian-Pacific region. China also holds massive amounts of U.S. debt, and is one of the largest trade partners of the United States as well as a leading contributor to the Obama administration’s diplomatic strengthening in the Asian-Pacific region. Its aggressive and unyielding actions in this dispute are not unjustified. China holds the power of decision in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, as Beijing is the only player than can choose to further escalate the incident. The actions of Japan and the United States depend on China’s choice. If China chooses to push the situation to the point of war, China may stand a chance of victory against the United States in a limited war, but the benefits are overshadowed by the costs given thriving Sino-Japan and Sino-U.S. economic relations.

Despite consistently tenuous diplomatic relations on the surface, Japan and China maintain strong economic relations as two of the largest economies in the world. In 2003, bilateral trade between China and Japan reached an all-time high of $120 billion. Should Japanese investment in China, taper off due to the conflict, China stands to lose 500 billion yen ($6.34 billion) annually, a severe blow to the robust but slowing Chinese economy. All factors considered, it would appear that in steadily exacerbating the situation, China is merely attempting to intimidate Japan into ceding the islands.

U.S. Strategic Options

1. Support China/Persuade Japan to Back Down

While the United States has clearly and irrevocably pitted itself against China in the event of an escalation, it is still neutral regarding sovereignty of the islands and should remain so. For the sake of sustaining the protecting its economic interests in the Asia-Pacific, the United States should clearly inform China of its desire for good relations, refute any suspicions of imperialistic interference by Western society in Asian politics and request for peaceful negotiations. In regards to Japan, the United States should inform its ally of its clear military disadvantage against China, reiterate the importance for all nations of stability in the Asia-Pacific region and persuade Tokyo to relinquish its claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.


1. Significantly reduces risk of escalation to war.
2. Ensures regional security and good economic relations with China and potential future prosperity
3. No party truly seeks war, and thus peaceful settlement of the matter is ideal.


1. The United States appears weak by appeasing China
2. The United States will be indirectly admitting a mistake and validating Chinese claims that its transfer to Japan of the administrative control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands was “illegal.”
3. The international reputation of the United States will be tarnished. U.S. military threats could lose credibility in later disputes, as will its defense alliances.

2.Support Japan/ Limited Retaliation

Another strategy is to abide strictly to the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty and support Japan in the event of military clash with China, albeit in a limited manner. This strategy takes into consideration the essential benefits of positive Sino-American relations, but remains true to the U.S. style of big-stick diplomacy. Rather than attempt to negotiate a solution behind closed doors, the United States will continue to publicly express support for Japan. Direct military action should be avoided to prevent an overreaction on the Chinese side, but partial mobilization should be considered. Additionally, the U.S. should advise the Japanese military to mobilize while bolstering defenses in Japanese-controlled waters to create a dangerous tripwire, to test the intentions of the Chinese government and to signal that the combined U.S. and Japanese military could hold off a Chinese incursion.


1. Effective signaling of U.S. and Japanese commitment to defense with military movement.
2. Creation of a tripwire increases places the United States and Japan at an advantage in an initial military confrontation.
3. In the event of potential escalation into a large-scale war and victory for Japan and the United States, Washington demands forgiveness of debt to China. Japan claims sovereignty of Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.


1. High potential for war
2. There is extremely high risk of failure in a limited war, thus the only way to secure victory in a war against China is a full-scale war, the escalation of which becomes difficult to justify and execute with this strategy.

3. Support a Third Party Peace Treaty/ Manipulate Risk

The Chinese military has grown dramatically since 2000, with its defense budget growing at 10 percent each year. China has reason to flex its muscles against the Japanese. Restrictions placed on Japan following its defeat in the Second World War severely hindered the activities of its armed forces. While the United States undoubtedly remains the most powerful military nation in the world, it stands a chance of failure in a war against China if it refuses to engage in a full-scale war.

The United States should secretly inform Japan that it would not offer any military support if Japan initiates conflict with China, since such a move violates the terms of the U.S.-Japanese Defense Treaty. This stifles hawkish elements within Japanese politics and discourages potential instigators from seeking U.S. support through voluntary escalation. The United States should publicly inform China that while it may not successfully defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the event of armed conflict, it would be more than willing to enter into a drawn-out conflict alongside its ally Japan. This drastically increases the risks of escalation, but it is a risk China is unlikely to take. The Chinese military is nowhere close to being able to engage in a fully committed war against the United States and win,. While China’s ally Russia could intervene on its behalf, it is not contractually bound to align itself with China in the event of war. Even if Russia and possibly North Korea enter the war on China’s side, the repercussions of such a wide-reaching conflict is something that hurts China in the long-run, especially since the dispute over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands mainly rests on historical grudges. Thus it is safe to assume that China would rather pursue a peaceful resolution to the dispute, something that both Japan and the United States would welcome.


1. Clear signaling. Extremely high escalation of risks leaves little ambiguity to opponents’ strength. China’s response becomes fairly easy to predict.
2. Method with greatest likelihood of persuading China and Japan into peaceful negotiations with international bodies of justice such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which the two have been reluctant to do so before.
3. Firm arrival at an ideal peaceful resolution.


1. The terms of the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty suggest that Japan should partake in the majority of defense of affected territories. The United States risks appearing domineering and imperialistic in its threats of full-scale warfare against China.
2. The United States risks appearing manipulative. It may be accused of using the island disputes as an excuse to wage war against China. This will only fuel negative Chinese sentiments about the United States, something that both the Bush and Obama administrations have been attempting to alleviate.
3. Japan may refuse to partake in a full-out war against China.
4. Could potentially start a regional conflict that draws in Russia, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan.


The Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes could potentially escalate into war. However, it is clear that war is not the preferred outcome for any of the parties involved. While the United States may be reluctant to intercede on behalf of Japan, it should not hesitate to oblige to its alliance when faced with the real possibility of armed conflict. By elevating the risks of escalation and preparing for full-scale war, the United States exhibits a credible commitment to its diplomatic alliance with Japan. This forces China to tone down its hawkish rhetoric and stifles any potential expansionist desires. In reality, this high-risk, high-commitment strategy is feasible due to the China’s aversion to a full-scale regional war with the United States. Japan will have no choice but to comply with negotiations of peace due to the United States’ conditions of non-interference in the event of a war initiated by Japan. Thus, risking an all out war is actually the most effective manner to directing all parties toward serious and productive discussion toward a peace treaty.

Please refer to figure below for a visual representation of the proposed strategy and potential outcomes.

Image by Jacob Ehnmark
Chart by Shirley Xu

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