alliances, allies, Asia, Asia-Pacific, China, Demitri Sevastopulo, East China Sea, Financial Times, globalism, Japan, Joe Biden, Northeast Asia, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Senkaku Islands, South Korea, Taiwan, Takeshima Islands, Yoshihide Suga
Now wait a second! For decades we’ve been hearing that possible President-elect Joe Biden is a foreign policy genius! Or at least that during his (47?) years in public life, he’s gained encyclopedic knowledge of the world and especially its flashpoints. (See, e.g, here.)
And just last night came the news that the former Vice President may have needlessly thrown the Northeast Asia security scene into major confusion over whether his administration will or won’t defend the Senkaku Islands.
Never heard of the Senkaku Islands? I’m tempted to forgive you. After all, they’re little than a bunch of uninhabited islets and rocks in the East China Sea. Although the surrounding fishing grounds seem to be fertile and there may or may not be undersea energy resources nearby, in and of themselves, their economic importance at present appears marginal.
Their strategic importance, in terms of controlling sealanes close to the economic goliath of Northeast Asia could be greater. But if so, we begin approaching why the Senkakus should be closer to your radar screen. For the islands are claimed by no fewer than three countries: Japan (which currently “administers” them, China, and Taiwan. The first is a formal U.S. treaty allly, the second has become arguably America’s chief strategic rival both in the Asia-Pacific region and globally, and the third an historical part of China that Beijing seems increasingly determined to regain – and by force if necessary.
Moreover, since the Obama administration clarified the matter in 2014, it’s been U.S. policy to regard the Senkakus as Japanese territory that, under the terms of the two countries’ security arrangement, the United States is bound to help Tokyo defend against attack. And in principle, this includes nuclear weapons use – a major concern since the likeliest attacker these days, China, has lots of nukes of its own capable of reaching the U.S. homeland.
Or is this still U.S. policy? As widely reported yesterday, Biden issued a statement reaffirming the 2014 commitment (made of course when he was Vice President). At least that’s what new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga claims Biden told him in a phone call. But as alertly caught by the Financial Times‘ Demitri Sevastopulo,
“In a summary of the call provided to the media, the Biden transition team said the president-elect had ‘underscored his deep commitment to the defence of Japan and US commitments under Article V’ [of the security agreement] but did not refer specifically to the Senkaku. A transition team spokesperson declined to comment beyond the content of the summary.”
Isn’t this exactly the kind of confusion an experienced foreign policy hand should know how to avoid? And in particular, one who’s made “renewing” and “restoring” these arrangements after four years of a supposedly destructive Trump approach a hallmark of his global strategy?
Nor does the confusion stop there, for the Senkakus aren’t the only disputed islands in Northeast Asia. Don’t forget the Takeshima Islands. Or should they be called by their Korean name – Dokdo? Because they’re claimed by both North and South Korea, as well as Japan. Since South Korea is a U.S. security ally on a par with Japan, do they qualify for American-aided protection, too? If the North Koreans attempt a grab, that would seem like an easy call. (Of course, never forgetting that the North Koreans may well possess nuclear weapons that can hit the continental United States, too – or soon will.)
But what if South Korea attacks them and Japan invokes its U.S. treaty obligations? Wouldn’t Tokyo have every reason to believe that the Senkaku formula applies to the Takeshima/Dokdos, too? And what about the reverse situation – a South Korean attack? Would a Biden administration spokesperson be content to leave those countries in the dark about America’s real policy, too?
These scenarios may seem far-fetched. But only a little while ago, so did a pandemic that would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions around the world, and cripple the U.S. and global economies. I don’t recall the September 11 terrorist attacks being widely predicted, either.
Precisely because, for a globalist alliance worshipper like Biden, there are no easy answers to the Senkakus and Takeshima issues (and please don’t take my use of the Japanese names as an endorsement of Tokyo’s claims), the best maxims to follow are “Do no harm” and the closely related “Keep them out of the news.” Worrisomely, they’re two maxims that the ostensible master strategist who might become America’s next President seems to have completely forgotten.