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10 years after Senkaku boat collision: Laying the groundwork for U.S. involvement

  • September 4, 2020
  • , Nikkei , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

By Oki Nagai


The 2010 collision of a Chinese fishing vessel with patrol vessels of the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) off the Senkaku Islands was the moment when the U.S. stated that the Japan-U.S. security agreement applies to the defense of the Senkakus. In order to counter China, which continues its military expansion, it is necessary to receive a clearer commitment from the U.S.


On Sept. 22, 2010, then-Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara held a meeting in New York City with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. A part of the meeting was effectively a one-on-one talk with only interpreters present. The meeting was intended as a negotiation to draw out U.S. involvement in the Senkakus at a meeting scheduled for the next day with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.


Maehara’s aim was to have the U.S. state that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which determines the responsibilities for Japan’s defense, applies to the Senkaku Islands. Until then top U.S. officials used indirect language such as “the security treaty applies to territories that are under Japan’s administration. The Senkaku Islands are under Japan’s administration.”


Maehara explained the circumstances behind the collisions and requested U.S. cooperation, saying that Japan would like the U.S. to “state that [the security treaty] applies to the Senkakus.” Campbell said that he understood, and added that “the U.S. does not wish for a further escalation of the situation.”


When Maehara informed Campbell that “Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku was acting to resolve the situation,” the U.S.’s course of action took shape. The next day, Sept. 23, then-Secretary Clinton said in a meeting with Maehara that “the Japan-U.S. security treaty clearly applies to the Senkakus.” It was the moment when the U.S. response went one step further.


The U.S. expected China to take a hard line stance over the collisions. But top U.S. Department of Defense officials were surprised that China’s response extended to the economic arena with such measures as delaying rare earth metal exports to Japan. Department of Defense officials told Japan that the statement on the Senkakus was intended to “clearly demonstrate [the U.S.’s stance on] future developments involving China.”


After the collisions, there were views within the Department of State that the U.S. should increase its involvement in the Senkakus. A direct request from Maehara, whom the U.S. considered a future candidate for prime minister, pushed matters toward further involvement. Then-secretary Clinton reportedly made the final decision.


During the past 10 years, Japan has requested the U.S.’s stronger involvement in the defense of the Senkaku Islands. When then-President Barack Obama visited Japan in 2014, he stated that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty “applies to all the territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”


It was the first such statement from a U.S. president. The Trump administration maintains that position. Japan’s strategy – to obtain a guarantee that the U.S. military will take joint action [with Japan] if China intrudes into the Senkakus  – is gradually moving forward.


The U.S. does not wish for a military conflict and has a strong desire not to become involved in a dispute between Japan and China. Some think China insisted that Japan schemed to cause the collision to emphasize that Japan was at fault so that the U.S. would hesitate to become involved.


Maehara says that it is important for “Japan to secure a stronger promise from the U.S. on the defense of the Senkaku Islands while reinforcing its posture of self-defense.”

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