Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.05.19

President Obama's Comments on the Senkaku Islands

Just as attention was being paid to the position President Obama might take on the Senkaku Islands during his April 23-25 stay in Japan, at the joint press conference after his bilateral talks with Prime Minister Abe on the 24th, the President stated unequivocally, "Our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands." This is no different than what high U.S. officials had stated previously but what is now significant is the clear statement by the President.

Japan, however, cannot rest easily on President Obama's statement; indeed, from now on, it will have to work harder. President Obama urged Prime Minister Abe to address proactively - and to resolve - the conflict with China over the Senkaku Islands. And, his statement was worded strongly. He also said, "We don't take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus." We have to look at the entirety of his statement to understand his true intent.

Unfortunately, the President's remarks were not accurately reported in the press because they depended, in part, on interpreters. President Obama urged Prime Minister, " I've said directly to the Prime Minister that it would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China." The original phrase in English - "a profound mistake" - was instead translated into Japanese as "not correct" or as an "undesirable mistake" (according to the recording posted at website of the Prime Minister's Office). None of the national newspapers seem to have reported the comparatively stronger sense of President Obama's comments.

Grammatically speaking, the President's phrase was expressed in the subjunctive. One cannot say, therefore, that President Obama was directly criticizing Prime Minister Abe. There is no question, however, that the President's sentiment bordered on criticism. It would be a different story if such remarks had been directed toward a party that was diplomatically antagonistic to the United States. Such sentiments, however, are hardly ever aimed at an ally. The United States was expressing dissatisfaction toward Japan for its refusal to enter into a dialogue with China about the Senkaku Islands, while, at the same time, it demonstrated its understanding of and its support for Japan's position.

The Japanese ought to know about President Obama's true sentiments. What should Japan do? Both legally and historically it is evident that Japan has sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. It is natural, therefore, for Japan to adhere to its stated position that no territorial issue exists. Third-party nations, however, would not understand Japan's position of not engaging in a dialogue with China.

Japan must try to bring its dispute with China to a peaceful conclusion. To that end, Japan should attempt to resolve it at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Japan has already uttered some statements with respect to bringing the issue to the ICJ for resolution: It has said only that, it would be legally possible for Japan to go to the ICJ should China bring the case to the Court. Japan should clearly and affirmatively state that it wishes to solve the issue at the ICJ and that it is making efforts for such an outcome. And Japan should brief the United States and other nations that have an interest in the issue, asking for their cooperation in persuading China to resolve the issue at the ICJ.

In addition to strongly urging Japan to deal with the issue, President Obama stated, "We're going to do everything we can to encourage that diplomatically." In principle, the U.S. attaches importance to ICJ resolutions. When, for instance, a Chinese high official carelessly asserted that China could insist on its territorial rights over Hawaii, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton replied, "Well, you're welcome to try. Territorial rights will be settled through arbitration institutions. That is precisely the action that we want you to take." Strictly speaking, international arbitration and the ICJ are two different procedures; they are substantively alike, however, insofar as they both request that an international forum render a fair resolution of an outstanding international dispute.

The U.S. has consistently adhered to its policy principle of refraining from intervening in territorial disputes among third parties. President Obama's statement this time is nothing new.

It should be noted that, as to the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. is in a special position. It is not a third party in the ordinary sense of the word. It was the United States and other signatories to the San Francisco Peace Treaty that established that the Senkaku Islands are part of the "Ryukyu Islands," as stated in the Treaty, and in this the U.S. played a leading role. This took place in 1953 and has continued to this day. ("Legal Status of Senkaku Islands"). Japan should remind the U.S. of this fact and request that it take appropriate actions befitting its position.