SPEAKING FREELY China plots strategic coup in the Pacific
By Richard C Thornton
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Despite commentary that China and the United States are moving closer together, the opposite is the case. In fact, China is mounting a direct, if subtle, challenge to the international order the United States created in the Far East after World War II. Most are aware that China is attempting to leverage growing military strength into a larger, dominating position by laying claims to islands in the East and South China Seas. Few realize that China is attempting to overturn the legal underpinnings of the US position in the western Pacific.
Like the Chinese proverb "to point at the mulberry tree to curse
the locust tree", Beijing's challenge to Japan's sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands is in fact a bid to abolish the entire structure of Far Eastern international relations established by the San Francisco Treaty of September 1951. (The Chinese refer to the Senkakus as Dyiaoyutai, literally a "fishing platform", but in recent months Beijing has taken to calling Dyiaoyutai the Dyiaoyu Islands to add legal heft to the dispute.)
Ironically, while Beijing objected to the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty at the time, claiming sovereignty over the Paracel, Spratley, and Pratas (Dong Sha) Island groupings, it said nothing about the Senkakus. Indeed, a foreign ministry report dated May 15, 1950 specifically acknowledged Japan's sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, using the Japanese term, and linking the islands to the Ryukyu Island chain that includes Okinawa. 
Of course, half a century ago Beijing was too weak to take action on any of these old claims, but China's growing military strength has emboldened Beijing to reactivate old claims and invent new ones. Beijing has already staked its claim to the Paracels, Spratleys, and Pratas Islands, but in their exertion of military pressure on Japan to relinquish the Senkaku Islands, the challenge is not only to Japan, but also to the United States.
The United States administered the Senkaku Islands from 1951 to 1971, but returned them to Japan as part of the reversion of Okinawa. Thus, the Senkaku Islands and Okinawa are included in the provisions of the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960, which guarantees American protection to Japan against external attack. If the United States declines to back Japan in China's challenge over the Senkaku Islands, it would invalidate the US security guarantee to Japan, call into question the alliance itself, and undermine the US position in the Western Pacific, both legally and in fact.
The Chinese understand precisely what the implications are, as do we. Will US President Barack Obama uphold US treaty obligations, back Japan, and maintain the San Francisco system, or attempt to "redefine" its commitments as it shrinks from confrontation? Make no mistake, the stakes are high.
To cave in to China's challenge to Japan over the Senkakus would be to abandon the international system the United States put in place after World War II and open the door to Chinese domination of the region's surrounding states, whose leaders would all have to come to terms with China as the dominant power. The result would mark the beginning of the end of America's dominance of the Western Pacific and begin to resemble the Chinese system of vassal states that existed before the collapse of the Ching Dynasty 150 years ago.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Richard C Thornton is Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University