The world is witnessing the start of a new era of antagonism and confrontation between its second and third biggest economies, with volatile consequences for regional security and stability as well as for U.S. strategic interest in Asia.
The recent standoff between Japan and China over a boat collision near the disputed Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled and administered by Japan since 1895, shows that Beijing has adopted an aggressive stance against Japan and there will be more tension to come.
Beijing's harsh and retaliatory ultimatums appear to have won the day-the 3-month-old Naoto Kan administration's decision to release the Chinese captain on Sept. 27 was viewed by Japanese public and media as a "weak-kneed response" under Beijing's pressure, and the Chinese government has announced that from now on, it will regularly deploy Chinese patrol boats near the Senkaku Islands.
In the longer run, however, "the pugnacious Chinese action will hurt them across the region," says Kent Calder at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, "China really overplayed its hand, it is a revealing moment, and the rest of Asia is looking on and saying 'uh-oh,' Beijing's 'soft-power diplomacy'-that a rising China is not a threatening China-has all gone up in smoke."
While the two Asian giants may not be heading toward war anytime soon, and tension in Sino-Japanese relations has become more or less routine, "China's increasingly aggressive foreign policy and the volatility of China's relationship with Japan, not to mention with the rest of its East Asia neighbors," suggests Max Fisher of the Atlantic, "is now a very serious concern for the U.S."
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara at the tense moment of the crisis, the Senkaku Islands "are covered by the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan." Under the Article 5 of the 1960 treaty, both countries "assume the obligation to maintain and develop their capacities to resist armed attack in common and to assist each other in case of armed attack on territories under Japanese administration."
Though the present hostility between China and Japan may not escalate and involve the U.S., the Sino-Japanese Senkaku confrontation is for sure a testing time for the alliance. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced, the United States "would fulfill our alliance responsibility" if the conflict escalated. Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also stated explicitly that the U.S. would "live up to any requirements of its alliance with Japan." "Obviously," stated Mullen, "we are very, very strongly in support of our ally in the region, Japan."
China's decision to escalate tensions with Japan is also meant as a veiled warning for America and its other Asian allies. The issue of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and China's ambitious plan of developing a blue-water navy to aggressively stake claims to islands and waterways in the East and South China Seas are not just a friction between Japan and China, but also poses a strategic question for the United States: Can the United States prevent China from dominating East and Southeast Asia?
"The oil-rich sea lane has become a strategically crucial link from East Asia to the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa, and beyond," Max Fisher points out, "those connections are rapidly becoming some of the most important and most heavily trafficked trade routes of the global economy. Whoever controls the South China Sea will also control the ability of navies to project force across the Eastern and Western hemispheres. If we simply let current trends continue, it's entirely foreseeable that China could cajole or bully the entire East and Southeast Asia under its influence."
Japan is the United States' top ally in Asia and "the U.S.-Japan alliance a cornerstone of world peace and security," as President Obama declared. Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his administration are under strong domestic criticism that it caved in to bullying by China, it is crucial for the Obama administration to show its commitment to our Japanese ally and support Tokyo on international stage. The United States has to stand by its closest ally in Asia and curb aggressive Chinese behavior on the high seas. Risk of inaction will be to allow China to coerce and bully its neighbors and to keep the United States shut out of the region.
Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College's China Program.