Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 12 November 2020


Biden says US-Japan defence treaty applies to disputed Senkaku Islands

A Japanese military surveillance plane flies near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Tokyo and Beijing both claim as part of their own territories © Reuters

Joe Biden has declared that US security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands, in the president-elect’s first significant foreign policy move related to China.

According to Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga, Mr Biden made the pledge in a 15-minute conversation on Thursday morning local time.

“President-elect Biden gave me a commitment that Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands,” said Mr Suga.

The statement is an early signal that Mr Biden intends to work with US allies to push back against China, although he stopped short of making a direct public comment.

In a summary of the call provided to the media, the Biden transition team said the president-elect had “underscored his deep commitment to the defence of Japan and US commitments under Article V” but did not refer specifically to the Senkaku. A transition team spokesperson declined to comment beyond the content of the summary.

The Senkaku, which China claims as the Diaoyu islands, are one of the most important security flashpoints in East Asia. Although uninhabited, they have been administered by Japan since the late 19th century.

Incursions by Chinese fishing and coastguard vessels into waters around the islands have sparked regular stand-offs with Japan. Article 5 commits the US to come to Japan’s defence in the event of an armed attack against any territory under its administration.

In 2014, when Mr Biden was vice-president, Barack Obama said the disputed islands in the East China Sea were covered by the US-Japan defence treaty, marking the first such determination by a US president.

In reiterating that commitment to Japan, Mr Biden has taken a step that will anger China, which has become increasingly assertive over its own claim.

During the US presidential campaign, Donald Trump frequently claimed that Mr Biden would be weak on China and would allow Beijing “to own our country”.

Speaking to the Financial Times ahead of the election, advisers and confidantes said Mr Biden had adopted a harsher view of China. During the Democratic presidential primary in February, he described China’s president Xi Jinping as “a thug”.

“This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic — with a small ‘d’ — bone in his body,” Mr Biden said at the time.

Jeff Prescott, a top Asia adviser to Mr Biden, in October told the FT that Mr Xi had taken China in “a more authoritarian direction” and that the next US president was “going to have to recalibrate the relationship with China”.

Mr Biden’s support of Mr Suga comes as US-China relations remain at a nadir. In addition to launching a trade war with China, Mr Trump has since March approved a series of tough measures in an effort to punish Beijing for the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which he believed hurt his re-election bid.

Mr Suga said he had congratulated Mr Biden on his election and on Kamala Harris on becoming the first female vice-president. “We will have to consider the appropriate timing for a visit to the US, but we agreed we should meet as soon as possible,” he said.

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