US stays out of disputes between Japan, other Asian nations over islands

Hoping to remain neutral in territorial disputes over the Takeshima and Senkaku islands, the United States has urged Japan, South Korea and China to resolve the issues through peaceful dialogue.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a Thursday press conference that the United States takes “no position” on Japan’s proposal to take the territorial dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima islands to the International Court of Justice.

However, comments on Wednesday by Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, suggest a different slant on the U.S. position.

After meeting Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and other U.S. officials, Sugiyama said the two nations agreed that international disputes should be settled peacefully under international law.

At Thursday’s press conference, however, Nuland made no mention of international law, leading many analysts to think she wanted to avoid saying anything that could suggest the United States supports Japan’s proposal to take the issue to The Hague.

The U.S. government is likely concerned that the dispute between Japan and South Korea could adversely affect their cooperation with the United States on issues concerning North Korea, and has prompted the two Asian neighbors behind the scenes to resolve the ongoing row.

Reaffirming that Japan and South Korea are both “strong, important, valued allies of the United States,” Nuland described the recent dispute as “obviously not comfortable for us,” indicating the United States would prefer not to see the row intensified or prolonged.

However, the United States has in the past clearly supported Japan in its dispute with Russia over the northern territories off Hokkaido.

When then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri — one of the four islands claimed by Japan — in November 2011, a senior U.S. State Department official made a comment in support of Japan that invited a harsh rebuke from Russia.

On the other hand, the government of Chinese President Hu Jintao has shown a keen interest in the deepening row between Japan and South Korea over the Takeshima islands. The Chinese media has been critical in its reporting of Japan’s stance on the issue.

On Thursday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency released an article saying the territorial dispute is having a grave impact on the Japan-South Korea relationship. The article said Japan was plunging itself into a crisis by simultaneously intensifying territorial rows with two of its neighbors.

A diplomatic source in Beijing said China and South Korea have some shared values, both having suffered at the hands of Japanese aggression. With the Japan-China relationship being strained further due to the Senkaku dispute, China could seek to form a united front with South Korea, the source added.

In fact, following the collision of a Chinese trawler with Japan Coast Guard vessels off the Senkaku Islands in September 2010, China and Russia put pressure on Japan by issuing a joint statement condemning attempts to falsify history.

A source knowledgeable about Japan-China relations said, “China could make a bold move while the Japanese government is struggling with its relationship with South Korea.”