Located between Taiwan and Okinawa, the islands (called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China) are believed to sit astride sub-sea oil and natural gas reserves and are positioned along a strategic Chinese route to the Pacific. The Senkakus have been under Japanese influence since the late 1800s, but China began making more assertive claims to the islands in the late 1960s and early 1970s in light of a United Nations report about potential hydrocarbon exploration around the territory. By the early 1980s, Tokyo and Beijing had reached a tacit understanding that Japan would prevent Japanese (and other) citizens from landing on the Senkakus or developing them. In exchange, China agreed to refrain from actively claiming or patrolling the islands. In 2010, however, tensions flared between the two countries after a Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japanese coast guard ship.
The collision itself was just a trigger for a confrontation that had been steadily mounting as China's maritime assertiveness grew. While the United States did not take an official stance on the sovereignty of the Senkakus, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that U.S.-Japan defense agreements cover the islands because they are administered by Japan. This meant that Washington would likely come to Tokyo's assistance should conflict erupt with China. The comment reflects U.S. intentions to expand defense ties with Japan as part of a broader realignment of strategic relations in Asia, and it coincided with an increase in U.S. attention to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Although China and Japan eventually quieted the issue, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a Japanese nationalist, announced during an April 2012 speech in the United States that the Tokyo city government intended to buy three Senkaku islands from their private Japanese owner. Ishihara's comments were in part related to political bickering inside Japan and in part an attempt to draw increased U.S. attention to Japanese concerns about China's expanding maritime activities.
Regardless, the comments placed the Japanese government in a difficult position. On the one hand, the Japanese administration has consistently asserted that the Senkakus are not disputed. Thus, the purchase would technically be legal, despite its obvious political impact on relations with China. On the other hand, a transfer of ownership to the Tokyo government would make it more difficult for the administration to manage activities on and around the islands, again raising the potential for a negative Chinese response.
The Japanese government's solution was to announce that it would consider purchasing or nationalizing the islands itself. The statement triggered a verbal backlash from Beijing and contributed to domestic political problems for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party accused the ruling party of not moving quickly enough on the issue and incorporated the nationalization of the Senkakus into its own platform. China responded by deploying fisheries patrol vessels to the islands and refusing to withdraw when confronted by the Japanese coast guard. What had been a fairly quiet issue suddenly became a potential standoff between Chinese and Japanese maritime defense forces.
Sending a Message
As a Japanese ally, the United States was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to remain uninvolved with the debate. Although the U.S. State Department on several occasions reemphasized U.S. neutrality in the dispute, U.S. officials reiterated their belief that U.S.-Japan security agreements cover the Senkakus. From the Chinese perspective, this was clear interference by the United States in a bilateral dispute — something that exacerbated Beijing's dismay with Washington's recent involvement with the Philippines and with Vietnam in South China Sea territorial disputes.
News of potential U.S. Global Hawk overflights — not to mention plans for continual surveillance — are still unverified, but Washington likely does not have any intent to make such patrols completely public, even if it does not mind leaks about ongoing discussions. The United States has three Global Hawks stationed in Guam and thus is unlikely to maintain constant surveillance over the Senkakus. Rather, surveillance flights would likely involve a much broader overview of the waters around Okinawa and other Japanese islands at the southern end of the Ryukyu chain as well. Regardless, the patrols would not significantly change the situation in the area, aside from adding a few extra hours of overview.
The reported leak about the surveillance discussions, however, sends a message to three audiences: To China, it reinforces Washington's insistence that China should be cautious as to how far and how fast it attempts to assert its own regional maritime power. The leak is also intended to encourage Japan to remind the Tokyo government that Washington takes Japan's regional security seriously, thus removing the need for Tokyo to act in a manner that would significantly inflame tensions with China. Amid ongoing controversies surrounding U.S. basing and equipment, the leak also highlights the U.S. role in protecting the residents of Okinawa and shows that, although Okinawans bear a large burden in defense cooperation, they are net recipients of U.S. protection and attention.
The leak also sends a message to the rest of Asia. The United States has talked about a "pivot" to the Pacific and has asserted a greater interest in economic, political and defense issues in the Asia-Pacific region. But Washington's commitment to deterring a rising China has been questioned. The U.S. delay in sending an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea following North Korea's aggressive action against the South in 2010 was seen as Washington capitulating to China to the potential detriment of a U.S. ally's security. The United States has also avoided active involvement in the protection of Spratly islands claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea, despite near-confrontations between Philippine and Chinese vessels.
By suggesting that the United States will take a more proactive role in assuring Japan's continued control of the Senkakus, Washington is attempting to assuage concerns among other potential partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington aims to demonstrate its willingness to consistently and reliably counter any perceived Chinese overreach, allowing regional partners to feel confident about strengthening ties with the United States in spite of Chinese assertiveness.