Stormy Seas On California’s Coast

Island Dispute by Patrick ChappatteCalifornia is playing host to two of our most important partners in Asia: Japan and China. On Tuesday, troops from Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF) arrived for amphibious training exercises with the US Marines off the coast of San Diego. Last Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived at Rancho Mirage to meet with President Obama about national security issues relevant to both countries.

Security was on the minds of both Japan and China as their respective representatives spent time here. The major area of contention between the two has recently been the neutrally-named Pinnacle Islands. While this issue was brought up explicitly by President Obama to President Xi, it was only implied by the activities of the Japanese troops.

The reason for the visit by the GSDF to California, the first of its kind, was supposedly to practice “ambitious attack capabilities” along rugged coastlines to better prepare Japan for events like the March 2011 Tsunami and Earthquake, which left 27,000 Japanese citizens dead or missing. Improving natural disaster relief efforts is of course critical, but I don’t necessarily see how such “capabilities” will be of assistance.

Such training may have made more sense at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a time when the US was being actively aided by the GSDF in allied defensive activities. Currently, though, the passive-aggressive fight over the Pinnacle Islands is the only situation for which Japan has any need for such attack maneuvers.

China, meanwhile, has been conducting its own military buildup. As China’s economy has grown and become more sophisticated, so has its military. There are many reasons for China to take an interest in a stronger military: the looming threat of ally North Korea to the region, its recent inroads into North African and Middle Eastern oil politics, a desire to protect what has become a thriving economy from outside threat or intrusion. Many Asia-watchers, however, have also cited China’s increased interest in sparking territorial disputes with its neighbors throughout the region. The Pinnacle Islands dispute has been the centerpiece of this campaign.

To this end, President Obama has urged both President Xi and Prime Minister Abe to settle the Islands dispute through diplomatic channels, focusing on deescalation, and not through independent actions on the islands themselves. Both countries appear resolute in their interest in the Islands, but there may be room for diplomatic input. Time will tell what the words and actions produced in California this week will do for Japan-China relations on this pivotal issue.

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Original Image Source: Patrick Chappatte, NY Times