The American Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, arrived in Japan on April 5 at the same time that American officials were sending signals that the Ukraine "crisis" caused by the Russian takeover of Crimea was over. Even though the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by President Clinton purported to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity, the U.S. response has been that there is no military solution (in other words: Crimea is not worth going to war over). The Budapest Memorandum did not mean what it said, American officials explained, because its commitments were "nonbinding." The memorandum is not a formal treaty.
Japan and the U.S. have a formal security treaty, which Defense Secretary Hagel emphasized publicly and privately. But Japanese officials were using the American response on Crimea to try to leverage a stronger American commitment to an even less important bit of contested real estate in the East China Sea -- the uninhabited islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Both countries claim the islands, whose status is legally ambiguous. The Chinese discovered a large natural gas field near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2006, which China and Japan have developed jointly since 2008.
Increasing Japanese militarism was expressed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January, when he told the World Economic Forum that the world should stand up to China or risk a regional war with global economic consequences. Feeding that fear in February, U.S. intelligence officer Capt. James Farrell claimed that Chinese training exercises included practice for "a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea." The U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, responding indirectly at the time, asking that "both sides lower the temperature and focus on diplomacy," while adding that the U.S. had no position on the dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Adding to the context leading up to Hagel's visit, the North Koreans launched some 30 short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Japan promised to shoot down any more North Korean missiles seen as a threat to Japan. And South Korea, which also has a military security treaty with the U.S., tested a new, long-range ballistic missile that could reach almost any point in North Korea, firing it into the Yellow Sea.
Manipulating the perception of increasing tensions, the Japanese sought to maneuver the U.S. in committing itself to a military response to any attack on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that Japan administers. Hagel reaffirmed the American commitment to protect Japan's security, without specifically including the disputed islands, reiterating the official U.S. position that it has no position.
For all their diplomatic ambiguity, Hagel's assurances annoyed the Chinese without satisfying the Japanese. Hagel travelled on to China, where he became the first foreigner to get a tour of China's newest aircraft carrier, a former Soviet vessel that the Chinese spent a decade refurbishing after buying it from Ukraine.
What none of the public officials (and little if any of the media coverage) said about the Sendaku/Diaoyu islands is that the islands are arguably located in both countries' excusive economic zones and also within their 200-mile territorial limits (the East China Sea is about 360 miles wide) as controlled by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both countries have signed. The dispute has been pending before the UN's State Oceanic Administration since December 2012, when China submitted its claim. The ocean area in dispute is about one-and-a-half times the size of Crimea.
Speaking at the NATO Transformation Seminar in Paris on April 8, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen defined the Ukraine situation through the now familiar meme of Russian troops massed on the border of Ukraine, a description of reality that is as unchallenged as it is unproven, even though it has settled into acceptance as conventional wisdom: