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Minh Tran asked: What is the U.S. position on Japan-China territorial dispute over Senkaku Islands?

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  • Shamshad Ahmad Khan replies: The US position on Senkaku Islands, a contested territory in the East China Sea between Japan and China and Japan and Taiwan, is ambiguous. The US State Department maintains that “the US does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.” However, when the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Japan and China amidst rising tension between the two neighbours following nationalisation of the Senkakus by Japan on September 11, 2012, although he stated that the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus, but at the same time added that the US will not take sides in the territorial dispute between Japan and China. Therefore, it is not clear what practical steps the US will take in case tension between China and Japan escalates to a higher level.

    The question whether the US will come to Japan’s help in case of a military stand-off with China over Senkakus came to the fore for the first time in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel off the Senkakus. The arrest of the captain of the Chinese fishing boat had led to a diplomatic spat and suspension of high-level political meetings between Chinese and Japanese political leaders. At that time, the Obama administration decided not to state explicitly that the Senkakus are subject to the US-Japan Security Treaty, causing anxiety among the strategic circles in Japan.

    In January 2011, Benjamin Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications in the White House, had said that “the US does not have position on the question of sovereignty regarding the issue of the Diaoyu Islands.” For the first time, a senior American official had used the Chinese name Diaoyu to refer to the disputed territory. This was seen as a departure from the official position maintained by the previous Bush administration. In 2004, the US State Department had stated that the Senkaku Islands have been under the administrative control of the government of Japan since they were returned as part of the reversion of Okinawa in 1972.