WASHINGTON— Kurt Campbell, outgoing U.S. Assistant Secretary of State to East Asia has described the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands as a potential “powder keg.”
Campbell said the dispute has been one of his greatest challenges in the region.
“In four years as assistant secretary, I’ve faced many difficult diplomatic situations, but none more difficult than this,” Campbell told The Australian newspaper.
I’ve rarely seen diplomats on both sides [Japan and China] more white-knuckled, and on both sides the sense that no retreat or compromise is possible.
—Kurt Campbell, outgoing U.S. assistant secretary of state to East Asia
“I’ve rarely seen diplomats on both sides [Japan and China] more white-knuckled, and on both sides the sense that no retreat or compromise is possible,” he said.
China has become increasingly aggressive in claiming not only the small Senkaku Island group, which is called Diaoyu in Chinese, but also much of the South China Sea, spawning territorial disputes with countries across the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accused the Chinese Communist Party of making a grab for natural resources and of rousing anti-Japanese sentiment. Abe said economic growth, combined with patriotism, had become critical to the Party’s hold on power.
“In that process, in order to gain natural resources for their economy, China is taking action by coercion or intimidation, both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea,” Abe said in an interview with The Washington Post on the eve of meetings with President Obama at the White House last month.
Abe said Japan would not tolerate any challenges to the Senkaku Islands from China.
“What is important, first and foremost, is to make them realize that they would not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial water or territory by coercion or intimidation,” he said.
Last month, Tokyo accused the Chinese navy of twice locking a weapons-guiding radar on Japanese targets—one time on a Japanese naval ship, and the other time on a helicopter. The action is considered an intimidation in that it is usually undertaken before actually firing.
The Chinese denied the incidents, but Washington was not convinced and criticized the actions.
“I will say that with regard to the reports of this particular lock-on incident,” Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said in a daily briefing in Washington last month, “Actions such as this escalate tensions and increase the risk of an incident or a miscalculation. … They could undermine peace, stability, and economic growth in this vital region. So we are concerned about it.”
Campbell said he feared a military escalation between Japan and China and warned of economic instability in the region should a confrontation occur.
“We worry about unpredictable and accidental events. Both nations have assets—coastguard and military—in place.
“We urge both sides to get back to dialogue and discussion,” he said.
Campbell’s time as assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific has now come to an end. Considered key to President Obama’s ‘pivot’ toward a focus on Asia, he is reportedly writing a book on the foreign policy shift. He has also started a new consulting company called the Asia Group and is expected to take a greater role in the think tank he founded, the Center for a New American Security.
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