Mark E. Manyin
Specialist in Asian Affairs
Since the mid-1990s, tensions have spiked periodically among Japan, China, and Taiwan over the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) islets in the East China Sea. These flare-ups run the risk of involving the United States in an armed conflict in the region. Japan administers the eight small, uninhabited islets, which some geologists believe sit near significant oil and natural gas deposits. China and Taiwan both contest Japanese claims of sovereignty over the islets.
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 Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands). Under the treaty, the United States guarantees Japan’s security in return for the right to station U.S. troops—which currently number around 50,000—in dozens of bases throughout the Japanese archipelago. Although it is commonly understood that Japan will assume the primary responsibility for the defense of the treaty area, in the event of a significant armed conflict with either China or Taiwan, most Japanese would likely expect that the United States would honor its treaty obligations.
Each time tensions over the islets have flared, questions have arisen concerning the U.S. legal relationship to the islets. This report will focus on that issue, which has four elements:
- U.S. administration of the Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands) from 1953 to 1971;
- the application to the Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands) of the 1971 “Treaty Between Japan and the United States of America Concerning the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands”—commonly known as the Okinawa Reversion Treaty, approved by the Senate in 1971 and entered into force the following year (the Daito Islands lie to the east of Okinawa);
- the U.S. view on the claims of the disputants; and
- the relationship of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to the islets.
Members of Congress periodically have been involved or expressed interest in the Senkaku (Diaoyu) dispute over the decades, most prominently when the issue of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty’s application arose during the Senate’s deliberations over the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. In 2012, congressional committees explored the topic in hearings and 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.” Similarly, in January 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated that “we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the islets. This language was a reaction to China’s increase in patrols around the Senkakus since the fall of 2012, moves that appear to many to be an attempt to exploit the U.S. distinction between sovereignty and administrative control by demonstrating that Beijing has a degree of administrative control over the islets.
Date of Report: January 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: R42761
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