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Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress

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Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress

May 1, 2013

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Senkaku/Diaoyu Territorial Dispute with China

Japan and China have engaged in a struggle over islets in the East China Sea known as the
Senkakus in Japan, Diaoyu in China, and Diaoyutai in Taiwan, which has grown increasingly
heated since summer 2012. The uninhabited territory, administered by Japan but also claimed by
China and Taiwan, has been a subject of contention for years, despite modest attempts by Tokyo
and Beijing to jointly develop the potentially rich energy deposits nearby, most recently in 2008-
2010. In August 2012, the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from a private
landowner in order to preempt their sale to Tokyo’s nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara.
Although intended to tamp down the controversy, Japan’s “nationalization” of the territory upset
the status quo, leading to massive Chinese protests, sharp objections from Beijing, and a drop in
Sino-Japanese trade. In April 2013, the Chinese foreign ministry said for the first time that it
considered the islands a “core interest,” indicating to many analysts that Beijing was unlikely to
make concessions on this sensitive sovereignty issue.
Since then, China has conducted increasingly aggressive operations by dispatching both military
and maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft to the area, compelling the Japanese to respond
with their own forces and heightening the potential for escalation. On one occasion both countries
scrambled fighter jets, and in February 2013 the Japanese government reported that a Chinese
naval ship locked its weapons-targeting radar on Japanese assets on two occasions. Although no
shots were fired, the incident was considered a major escalation in the standoff and sparked
questions about whether the Chinese operator was acting on orders from Beijing, military
commanders, or his own discretion. Beijing has denied the accusation. Chinese activities
continued through the spring; in April, eight Chinese surveillance ships appeared in Japanese
territorial waters at once, according to a Japanese news report.
The United States has remained neutral on the sovereignty of the islands but re-affirmed that the
territory is covered under Article Five of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which stipulates that the
United States is bound to protect “the territories under the Administration of Japan” and Japan
administers the Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands). The Treaty obligates the United States to defend
Japan. Due to the risk of U.S. involvement in military operations, U.S. officials have urged
caution and encouraged both sides to avoid a conflict.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict embodies Japan’s security challenges. The maritime confrontation
with Beijing is a concrete manifestation of the threat Japan has faced for years from China’s
rising regional power. It also brings into relief Japan’s dependence on the U.S. security guarantee
and its anxiety that Washington will not defend Japanese territory if it risks going to war with
China. Operationally, Japan has an acute need for its military, known as the Japan Self Defense
Forces, to build up their capacity in the southwest part of the archipelago. Similarly, many
observers cite the lack of coordination and clear delineation of responsibilities between the
Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces and Coast Guard.

Historical Controversies Resurface

As Abe’s high approval ratings held steady in spring 2013, a series of history-related issues arose
in Japanese politics that threatened to destabilize regional relations. (See “Abe and History
Issues” section below for background.) In April, 168 Japanese parliamentarians, including three
cabinet ministers, visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine during its spring festival. The shrine
houses the spirits of Japanese soldiers who died during war, including several individuals who
were convicted as “Class A” war criminals after World War II. South Korea and China
denounced the visits just as they had in past instances, saying that the shrine visits demonstrate
Japan’s lack of remorse for Imperial-era aggression. The Japanese politicians say that they went
to Yasukuni to pay respects to the nation’s war dead, as any national leader would do.
In addition, Abe made comments to the Diet in April that suggested that his government would
not re-affirm the apology for Japan’s wartime actions issued by former Prime Minister Tomiichi
Murayama in 1995. The “Murayama Statement” has been upheld by every Cabinet since it was
issued, including Abe’s first term Cabinet in 2006-2007, and is regarded as Japan’s most
significant official apology for wartime acts. Abe stated to the Diet that his government may not
uphold the statement “as is” and that the definition of “aggression” has not yet been “firmly
determined.” He has declared that his Cabinet would release a more forward-looking official
statement in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender,that supersedes the Murayama
Statement. Seoul canceled a minister-level meeting and the South Korean National Assembly
unanimously passed a resolution condemning Abe’s statements and the Yasukuni visits. A
Japanese newspaper reported that the United States government informally conveyed its concern
over the remarks to Japan. Abe himself refrained from visiting the Shrine and insisted that he
wanted to avoid history issues interfering with diplomatic relations.

Japan’s Foreign Policy and U.S.-Japan Relations2

The U.S.-Japan relationship is broad, deep-seated, and
stable but has been handicapped by the political
paralysis in Tokyo. The annual replacement of prime
ministers since 2006 has made long-term planning with
Japan complicated, particularly as the United States
seeks reliable partners in the Obama Administration’s
rebalancing to Asia strategy, also known as the “Pacific
Pivot.” Both Tokyo and Washington seek to manage
relations with a rising China, as well as address the
North Korean threat. Alliance cooperation at the
working level has been strong, driven closer by assertive
Chinese behavior and North Korean provocations.
Although major basing issues in Okinawa remain
stubbornly unresolved, other security matters such as
ballistic missile defense cooperation have progressed
under both the DPJ and LDP governments. The joint
response to the March 2011 disasters remains a vivid
reminder to both sides of the underlying strength of the
alliance.
It remains uncertain how Prime Minister Abe will fare as
a steward of the relationship. On the one hand, he is
known as a strong supporter of the U.S. alliance and
promotes a number of security positions that align with the United States. He is an advocate of
building relations with fellow democracies, particularly advancing security ties with Australia and
India. On the other hand, Abe faces questions about his ability to steer foreign policy away from
divisive regional issues that could hurt U.S. interests. (See section below for discussion.) In
addition, domestic political divisions mean that major U.S. priorities such as Japan agreeing to
the terms for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (see “Economic Issues” section for more) and
allowing for more advanced defense cooperation (see “Alliance Issues” section for more) will be
difficult to pursue. Abe’s approval ratings after his initial fourth months in office remained high,
but action on many agenda items may be determined by the July 2013 Upper House election
results.


Abe and History Issues


During his year-long stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, Abe was known for his nationalist
rhetoric and advocacy for more muscular positions on defense and security matters. Some of
Abe’s positions—such as changing the interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow for
Japanese participation in collective self-defense—were largely welcomed by U.S. officials eager
to advance military cooperation. Other statements, however, suggest that Abe embraces a
revisionist view of Japanese history that rejects the narrative of imperial Japanese aggression and
victimization of other Asians. He has been involved with groups arguing that Japan has been
unjustly criticized for its behavior as a colonial and wartime power. Among the positions
advocated by these groups, such as Nippon Kaigi Kyokai, are that Japan should be applauded for
liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers, that the 1946-1948 Tokyo War
Crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and that the killings by Imperial Japanese troops during the
1937 “Nanjing massacre” were exaggerated or fabricated. Historical issues have long colored
Japan’s relationships with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, who remain
resentful of Japan’s occupation and belligerence during the World War II period. Abe’s selections
for his Cabinet appear to reflect these views, as he chose a number of politicians well-known for
advocating nationalist, and in some cases ultra-nationalist views.
The previous DPJ government adopted a more conciliatory view of Japan’s past and worked to
mend historical wounds with South Korea and China. In August 2010, the 100th anniversary of
Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan renewed Japan’s
apology for its treatment of Koreans during colonial rule, and offered to return historical
documents and other artifacts taken from Korea. Until the end of their time in power, DPJ leaders
also avoided visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine that honors Japan’s wartime dead
and includes several Class A war criminals. Visits to the shrine by LDP Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi had severely strained Tokyo’s relationships with Beijing and Seoul in the early and mid-
2000s. In April 2013, a large group of lawmakers, including three cabinet ministers, visited
Yasukuni, again drawing protests from China and South Korea.
Abe last visited the Yasukuni Shrine in October 2012, after he was elected president of the LDP
but before the parliamentary elections that made him prime minister. Many analysts say that
Abe’s re-ascension to the premiership risks inflaming regional relations, which could disrupt
regional trade integration, threaten security cooperation among U.S. allies, and further exacerbate
already tense relations with China. Abe is under pressure from the Japan Restoration Party, a new,
fiercely nationalist party that won the third largest number of seats in the Diet. On the other hand,
during his last stint as prime minister, Abe successfully repaired ties with South Korea and China
and is regarded by some observers as a pragmatic politician. Since becoming prime minister, he
has not repeated his calls while in opposition to station Japanese civilians on the Senkaku Islands
and to designate a national “Takeshima Day” to promote Japan’s assertion of sovereignty over the
Dokdo/Takeshima island that is controlled by South Korea. Although relations with China are far
more problematic now, he recently sent an envoy to reach out to the new government in South
Korea, raising hopes that relations will not deteriorate significantly.

Comfort Women Issue3

Abe’s statements on the so-called “comfort women”—sex slaves used by the Japanese imperial
military during its conquest and colonization of several Asian countries in the 1930s and 1940s—
have been criticized by other regional powers and the U.S. House of Representatives in a 2007
resolution. Abe has suggested that his government might consider revising a 1993 official
Japanese apology for its treatment of these women, a move that would be sure to degrade Tokyo’s
relations with South Korea and other countries.
In the past, Abe has supported the claims made by many on the right in Japan that the women
were not directly coerced into service by the Japanese military. When he was prime minister in
2006-2007, Abe voiced doubts about the validity of the 1993 “Kono Statement,” an official
statement issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that apologized to the victims and
admitted responsibility by the Japanese military. As the U.S. House of Representatives considered
H.Res. 121 (110th Congress), calling on the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge,
apologize, and accept historical responsibility” for forcing young women into military
prostitution, Abe appeared to soften his commentary and asserted that he would stand by the
statement. The House later overwhelmingly endorsed the resolution. Then-Deputy Chief Cabinet
Secretary Hakubun Shimomura had been leading the movement to revise the statement; Abe
recently appointed him Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.
The issue of the so-called comfort women has gained visibility in the United States, due primarily
to Korean-American activist groups. These groups have pressed successfully for the erection of
monuments commemorating the victims, passage of a resolution on the issue by the New York
State Senate, and the naming of a city street in the New York City borough of Queens in honor of
the victims. In addition, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly instructed the State
Department to refer to the women as “sex slaves,” rather than the euphemistic term “comfort
women.”4

Territorial Dispute with China5

Japan, China, and Taiwan all claim sovereignty over a small group of uninhabited islets located
about 120 miles northeast of Taipei, known as the Senkakus in Japan, the Diaoyu in China, and
the Diaoyutai in Taiwan. China considers the islets to be part of Taiwan, over which it claims
sovereignty. Geologists believe that the waters surrounding them may be rich in oil and natural
gas deposits. The disputed claims are long-standing, but the episodes in early 2013 escalated
beyond previous incidents. In April 2012, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara announced in
Washington, DC, that he intended to purchase three of the five islets from their private Japanese
owner. Ishihara, who is known for expressing nationalist views, called for demonstrating Japan’s
control over the islets by building installations on the island and raised nearly $20 million in
private donations for the purchase. In September, the central government purchased the three
islets for ¥2.05 billion (about $26 million at an exchange rate of ¥78:$1) to block Ishihara’s move
and reduce tension with China. Protests, sometimes violent, erupted across China in response.
Starting in the fall of 2012, China began regularly deploying China Maritime Surveillance (CMS)
and Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) ships near the islands and stepped up what it
called “routine” patrols to assert jurisdiction in “China’s territorial waters.” Chinese military
surveillance planes reportedly have entered airspace that Japan considers its own, in what Japan’s
Defense Ministry has called the first such incursion in 50 years. In early 2013, near-daily
encounters have escalated: both countries have scrambled fighter jets, Japan has threatened to fire
warning shots, and, according to the Japanese government, a Chinese navy ship locked its firecontrol
radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter on two separate occasions.
U.S. administrations going back at least to the Nixon Administration have stated that the United
States takes no position on the territorial disputes. However, it also has been U.S. policy since
1972 that the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers the islets, because Article 5 of the treaty
stipulates that the United States is bound to protect “the territories under the Administration of
Japan” and Japan administers the islets. China’s increase in patrols appears to be an attempt to
demonstrate that Beijing has a degree of administrative control over the islets, thereby casting
into doubt the U.S. treaty commitment. In its own attempt to address this perceived gap, Congress
inserted in the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4310, P.L. 112-239) a
resolution stating, among other items, that “the unilateral action of a third party will not affect the
United States’ acknowledgment of the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands.” Perhaps
responding to the criticism of the Administration’s rhetoric, in January 2013 Secretary Clinton
stated that “we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese
administration,” of the islets.

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www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33436.pdf
 

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