05/21/2013 12:07 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

The U.S. Perilously Ignores Island Conflicts in Asia

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For most Americans, conflicting claims by Asian countries to small islands in the South China and East China Seas are a sideshow that distract from more serious national security issues in Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea and elsewhere. But recent events demonstrate that the United States ignores these island disputes at its peril.

On May 9, a Philippine coast guard vessel sprayed with gunfire a Taiwanese fishing boat that was allegedly fishing illegally in the Philippines' "exclusive economic zone." In a case of what Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou called "cold blooded murder," Filipino forces fatally shot a 65-year-old fisherman in the back.

The fallout between the two countries has been considerable. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III rejected the murder allegation but gave a "personal" apology for the incident which he called "unintentional." Taiwan rejected the apology and accused the Philippines of a "lack of sincerity and credibility" in cooperating with its investigation. In the meantime, Taiwan sent navy ships to the area to protect its fishermen.

The official U.S. response has been minimal at best, with a State Department spokesman declaring the United States is "hopeful [the Philippines] will move forward" to investigate while the American ambassador to the Philippines said "we know these things will be resolved through negotiations....We're glad that they're going to work these things out as democracies do."

The real question is whether the U.S. can afford the luxury of effectively distancing itself from either this conflict between two U.S. allies or the even more contentious dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabitable Senkaku/Diaoyu islands near Taiwan.

What if the dead fisherman was a PRC national killed "accidentally" and "unintentionally" by Japanese naval forces? Or what if PRC maritime patrol boats in the East China Sea had shot dead a member of the Japanese coast guard? Even worse, what if a deadly clash occurred between the F-15 fighters Japan sometimes scrambles near the islands and a Chinese maritime aircraft patrolling the area it regards as Chinese territory?

In the case of the East China Sea, the U.S. has become hostage to the hardline policy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has used the island conflict to pander to nationalist feelings and bolster his domestic political standing.

In the event of a confrontation with Chinese patrol boats or aircraft, Abe has made it clear Japan will respond aggressively, shooting first and asking questions later, to defend Japan's territorial claims. That would draw in U.S. military forces to support Japan, based on the Obama administration's current interpretation of American obligations under the US-Japan defense treaty -- even though the U.S. does not recognize either Japanese or Chinese sovereignty over the islands.

Given the massive suffering that right-wing governments inflicted on the Japanese people (let alone other countries) during World War II, it is truly tragic the leadership of Japan is now risking military conflict over small islands that have no strategic value. It is even more absurd that the United States could be boxed into defending Tokyo's claims to islands it acquired by conquest in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war.

An analogous situation occurred in 2004 when Taiwan took actions that could have triggered war with China and precipitated a larger confrontation involving the United States because of US treaty obligations. Fortunately, President George W. Bush warned Taiwan to curb its aggressive behavior and avoided a conflict.

Of course, other American allies besides Japan and the Philippines have exploited the island disputes in Asia to bolster their nationalist credentials with domestic political constituencies. Among the most flagrant examples is the provocative visit of former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in August of last year to the island of Dokdo/Takeshima, which is claimed by both South Korea and Japan. Lee's visit scuttled the prospect of improved military cooperation with Japan, which could have strengthened both countries' national security.

There are no lack of proposals from policy experts, in the United States and Asia, on how to mitigate, defuse and ultimately resolve the island conflicts in the South China and East China Seas. Brookings expert Richard Bush has written insightfully on ways to prevent the "tragic" scenarios he believes could come to pass between Japan and China in their island dispute. Nautilus senior associate Mark Valencia has laid out detailed prescriptions for a Code of Conduct to reduce the chances of conflict in the South China Sea.

In my recent book, The China Fallacy, I called for the U.S. to negotiate a pull-back of all Chinese forces now engaged in patrolling Japanese territory from a defined security zone surrounding Japan. I also proposed that all countries involved in the island disputes submit their claims for adjudication to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Ironically, only the Philippines has followed the latter approach, thus far.

The sad truth is that expert proposals won't amount to a hill of beans if the country that now dominates the Asia Pacific -- the United States -- effectively chooses to look the other way when the threat of serious armed conflict over small islands arises. Expressing "hope" and giving "encouragement" for Asian countries to peacefully resolve these difficult disputes by themselves is not worthy of a country that has the diplomatic, political and military clout to push for and achieve conflict resolution. Needless to say, a largely hands-off attitude also does little to bolster the standing of the United States in the region.

Donald Gross is senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a former State Department official, and author of The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China's Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2013).