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Analysis: War over Japanese rocks could drag in US

12th February 2017 - 22:00 by Wendell Minnick in Taipei

The Trump administration's first defence secretary, retired general James Mattis, confirmed on 3 February in Tokyo that Article Five of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the US applied to the Senkaku Islands.

The announcement did not please China, which declared the US must respect its 'ancient' territorial claim to the island. China has been quick to unfurl timeworn maps going back centuries marking the islands in some fashion.

The announcement was a much-needed clarification of the mutual defence treaty. In 2009, when the Senkakus issue heated up, US diplomats had no idea if the Senkakus came under the protection of the defence treaty, said Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walks with Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada during a pass and review at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, on 4 February. (Photo: US DoD)

Though Article Five calls upon the US to assist Japan to 'act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes,' Newsham, a retired USMC colonel, said the Japanese believe the defence treaty includes all parts of Japanese territory, but Article Five's wording in fact requires neither side to do much of anything.

'The perceived meaning on the Japanese side is that the US will jump right in and protect Japan – from all threats; and the Chinese grabbing or attempting to elbow out the Japanese from Japan's territory is indeed something the Japanese expect help with.'

Ching Chang, research fellow of the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies, said that there is too much suspicion in Tokyo over America's commitment and interpretation of Article Five.

'If there is no suspicion, you generally never ask your counterpart to repeat his commitment again and again,' he said, citing the Obama administration's 2014 assurance that the Senkakus were to be treated as Japanese territory.

Guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) operates in the South China Sea as part of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group. (Photo: US Navy)

Unless it wishes to end the US-Japan relationship, Newsham said, then the US must be involved. 'Withhold full support or stand on the sidelines and call for negotiations, and the Japanese will go ballistic,' he said.

The US government has never understood how important the Senkakus are to Japan. 'Sure, they may just be 'some rocks' – but consider what would happen if Mexico took a square yard of Texas.' Newsham said there is something visceral about a country's territory that makes people willing to fight – 'far beyond any actual financial or other intrinsic value.'

This is equally true for China. Beijing, which claims them as the Diaoyu Islands, lost them to Tokyo after a humiliating defeat during the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. Now, over 120 years later, it looks like another war is what it will take to satisfy Beijing's obsession over the islands.

One never knows. Who thought the Brits would have to mount a force to retake the Falkland Islands?
Lt Gen Wallace 'Chip' Gregson (Ret'd)

The danger of China and Japan fighting is the risk of escalation that could include the US in a nasty battle few Americans would understand, let alone find the rocks on a map. Newsham said he was shocked in 2009 over how many US diplomats in Tokyo did not know where the islands were located.

Retired Lt Gen Wallace 'Chip' Gregson, who served as the Assistant Secretary of Defence, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs from 2009-11 under the Obama administration, said a Chinese invasion of the islands would be a 'catastrophe' and cited other surprises of history as examples. 'One never knows. Who thought the Brits would have to mount a force to retake the Falkland Islands? Who – other than Maggie Thatcher – thought they could?'

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