Until Beijing recently declared an air-defense zone along its eastern coast, the United States chose largely to ignore the territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.
Now that's no longer possible and Vice President Joe Biden has been thrust to the center of this controversy.
In a few short days, Washington has moved from encouraging Tokyo and Beijing to peacefully settle their dispute over several small uninhabitable islands (annexed by Japan during the 1895 Sino-Japanese War) to taking an active role in managing the conflict and facilitating a solution.
This is all to the good. As the relatively obscure island conflict festered and deteriorated during the last several years, most worst-case scenarios developed by American experts foresaw a military incident between Japan and China causing loss of life that could escalate quickly to a serious armed confrontation between the U.S. and China.
Now the U.S. is in the comparatively advantageous position of promoting effective diplomacy without having to rush in military forces to protect its close ally, Japan, from actual Chinese aggression.
As is obvious to even a casual observer, disputes over small, insignificant pieces of territory arouse deep public emotions in Northeast Asia. In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu, diplomatic passivity has increasingly allowed the United States to be held hostage to the views of Japan's "hyper-nationalist" prime minister, Shinzo Abe, as the New York Times describes him.
Since taking office, Abe has further militarized the dispute with China by encouraging Japan's air force to scramble jets and Japan's navy to respond to actual or potential intrusions by Chinese planes or ships into areas claimed by Japan near the disputed islands. For its part, China has ramped up these intrusions as a way of substantiating its own claims and showing it won't be intimidated.
Each side is now determined to publicly prove its nationalist credentials by looking for ways of achieving "victory" rather than seeking to defuse tensions or peacefully settling the dispute.
Under an interpretation of the U.S.- Japan Defense Treaty, agreed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, the U.S. is bound to defend Japan's administration of the islands though the U.S. recognizes neither Japanese nor Chinese sovereignty.
In the midst of the current controversy, U.S. interests are increasingly clear:
- Preventing a military incident between Japan and China that could draw in U.S. armed forces and result in a major confrontation with China
- Fostering a settlement of the island dispute by significantly defusing tensions and increasing the chances of resolution
- Reinforcing the U.S. commitment to Japan's defense under the U.S.- Japan security alliance
- Deterring China from taking any unilateral action to change the legal status quo of the disputed territories
- Preventing the China-Japan dispute from derailing improved U.S.- China relations based on the June 2013 agreement between President Obama and President Xi to seek a "new model of major country relations"
As Vice President Biden strived this past week to balance these interests in discussions with Japan, China and South Korea, he surely stressed the Obama administration's new emphasis on diplomacy, "the often-unsatisfying art of compromise [which] has once again become the centerpiece of American foreign policy," according to the New York Times.
In the words of President Obama, speaking about the recent agreement with Iran, "we're testing diplomacy; we're not resorting immediately to military conflict...Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it's not the right thing for our security."
In the case of China, focusing on ways to manage and resolve the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute signifies the beginning of a process to address underlying security issues in Northeast Asia that could trigger armed conflict between Washington and Beijing if they are simply ignored.
Through intensive discussions between diplomatic teams that include war planners from both the Pentagon and China's PLA, the two countries can reach a series of agreements to sharply reduce the military threat China currently poses to Taiwan and bolster Japan's security by establishing a strategic buffer zone against intrusions of Chinese forces.
In exchange, the U.S. would address China's longstanding grievances against close-in surveillance of its coast by the U.S. Navy and Air Force while proportionately scaling down arms sales to Taiwan which would no longer be necessary.
There is real urgency in tackling these issues since the war plans developed by both Chinese and American military planners now place a premium on striking first -- preemptively -- and create "a textbook case of crisis instability," according to Former Deputy Director of National Intelligence David Gompert.
China dreads a long war "in which the full weight of American military strength would surely prevail." So the PLA is planning "to take out U.S. carriers, air bases, command-and-control networks early and swiftly" by striking U.S. forces before the United States can attack China.
America's "air sea battle" strategy similarly relies on attacking China first "with speed, fury and little warning" by bringing missiles, Stealth bombers and B-52s to bear against "missile launchers, air bases, submarine pens and command-and-control centers," most of which are on the Chinese mainland, Gompert writes.
With so much at stake for the United States, China and Japan, Vice President Biden's discussions this week have begun to lay the long-term basis for peace and stability through mutual threat reduction in the Asia Pacific.
As the Vice President said Thursday in Beijing:
"[If] we get this relationship right, together China and America, the region and the world will be better off for it for a long time to come, and that is not hyperbole...That's just fact. It is a fact that if we get this right the prospects for the 21st century being peaceful, secure and everyone sharing in the growing prosperity is real."
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Donald Gross is senior associate at Pacific Forum CSIS, a former White House and State Department official, and author of The China Fallacy (Bloomsbury 2013).