“The U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty of 1960 obligates the United States to treat any armed attack against any territories under the administration of Japan as dangerous to [America's] own peace and safety. This would cover such islets as the Senkakus also claimed by Beijing.”
So this author wrote 15 years ago in “A Republic Not an Empire.”
And so it has come to pass. The United States, because of this 53-year-old treaty, is today in the middle of a quarrel between Japan and China over these very rocks in the East China Sea.
This Senkakus dispute, which has warships and planes of both nations circling each other around and above the islands, could bring on a shooting war. And if it does, America would be in it.
Yet why should this be America’s quarrel?
The USSR of Nikita Khrushchev and the China of Mao Zedong, the totalitarian Communist states against whom we were committed to defend Japan, are dead and gone.
Why, then, are we still obligated to defend not only Japan, but all of its island possessions? Why were the treaties that committed us to go to war for scores of nations in the Truman-Eisenhower era not dissolved when the threat that gave rise to those treaties disappeared?
“The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies,” said Lord Salisbury. Of no nation is that truer than 21st-century America.
For some reason, we cannot let go. We seem so taken with our heroic role in the late Cold War that we cannot give it up, though the world has moved on.
Following China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over the Senkakus [Diaoyu to China], South Korea declared its own ADIZ, which overlaps upon those of both China and Japan.
South Korea is also in a quarrel with China over a submerged reef in the Yellow Sea known as Ieodo, but to China, Suyan. Seoul has built a maritime research station on the reef, the value of which is enhanced by the oil and gas deposits in the surrounding seabed.
These clashing claims of Beijing and Seoul could present problems for us – for, under our 1953 mutual security treaty, an attack on South Korean territory is to be regarded as “dangerous to [America's] own peace and safety.”
Thus far, China’s response to South Korea’s ADIZ has been muted. For Beijing’s focus is on Japan.
However, South Korea also has a long-running dispute with Tokyo over an island chain in the Sea of Japan. To the Koreans these islands are Dokdo, to the Japanese, Takeshima.
What we have here, then, are three overlapping air defense identification zones – of China, Japan and South Korea – and three territorial disputes – between China and Japan, China and South Korea, and Japan and South Korea.
And all three nations claim the right to fly warplanes into these zones, and to deny access to foreign warplanes.
America has little control over these countries, all of which have new governments that are increasingly nationalistic.
And this week there appeared an even more ominous cloud.
North Korea’s 30-year-old ruler, Kim Jong-un, who has been purging his party and army, ousted, on charges of corruption, his uncle and mentor Jang Song Thaek, the second-most powerful man in the regime.
Kim reportedly had two of Jang’s aides executed, and he is now massing ships and planes along his western sea border with South Korea, a site of previous clashes between North and South.
Kim may also be about to conduct a fourth nuclear test.
Any collision between North and South could instantly involve the United States, which, 60 years after the end of the Korean War, still has 28,500 troops on the peninsula, with thousands right up on the Demilitarized Zone.
And, lest we forget, the United States has a 1951 security treaty with the Philippines that obliges us to come to the defense of those islands. Yet, Manila, too, is involved in a dispute over islets such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal in a South China Sea that has been declared sovereign territory by Beijing.
The U.S. security treaties with Manila and Tokyo were entered into to defend those countries against a Sino-Soviet bloc that no longer exists.
Our treaty with Seoul was signed when South Korea was ravaged and destitute after three years of war. Today, the South has twice the population and 40 times the economy of the North. Why are we still there?
Neither U.S. political party has shown the least interest in reviewing these open-ended war guarantees, though it seems certain that one of these 50- or 60-year-old commitments will one day drag us into a confrontation if not a major war.
U.S. foreign policy today appears rooted less in U.S. vital interests than in nostalgia for the Cold War. As Dean Acheson said of the British half a century ago, so, it seems to be true of us:
The Americans have lost an empire – and not yet found a role.