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Why doesn't China just buy the Senkaku islands? (updated)

There's a fascinating and worrisome confrontation playing out in the East China Sea, over a group of uninhabited islands called the Senkakus (Chinese name: Diaoyu). Here's where they are, and here's what they look like.

Short version: Japan seized control of the islands following a war with China in 1895. The United States administered them from 1945 to the early 1970s. Japan regained control in 1972, when ownership was reacquired by a private family. Nobody lives there.

Earlier this year, the right-wing mayor of Tokyo said the city government was going to buy the islands to ensure that they remained in Japanese hands. (Had he gone ahead and done so, they would have become the most distant metropolitan suburb in the history of the world). To forestall this step, the Japanese national government bought the islands instead, a step that has provoked some ugly demonstrations in China and raised the possibility of a military confrontation.

This issue is a tricky problem for the United States, because we'll be expected to support our Japanese ally if the dispute escalates. The U.S. position on the whole issue isn't clear, however, and is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan agrees with the PRC and regards the islands (the largest of which is only some 4 square kilometers and is home to moles, birds, and sheep), as part of its territory too.

This whole business got me thinking. In a bygone era, sovereigns used to sell each other territory when it was in their interest to do so, normally when one of them needed cash. Remember the Louisiana Purchase, or the acquisition of Alaska from Russia? If the Japanese government can pay roughly $2 billion to buy the islands from a private family, why can't China pay the same amount (or whatever the market will bear) to obtain them from Japan? After all, the PRC is pretty flush with cash these days, and Japan could use some extra money (although ~$2 billion isn't really that much). Still, why not just view this as a simple matter of business?

The main obstacle to this obvious solution is nationalism. China regards the islands as Chinese territory, so why should they pay Japan in order to get something they think is rightfully theirs? Similarly, some Japanese might regard selling the islands as an affront to their own national pride, or something like that, even though nobody in Japan is likely to live there or even get anywhere near the remote little rocks.

Nonetheless, it would be smart move for Tokyo to offer to sell the islands at roughly the same price they just paid. Think of it this way: Suppose you and a wealthy neighbor disagreed over the boundary line between your property, and suppose further that the municipal records where you lived weren't clear. Both parties think the other's position is unfair, but you might be willing to forego your claim if your wealthy neighbor offered you enough. And he might be willing to do that even if he believed he was purchasing something he already owned, if doing so would be cheaper than litigation and if he wanted to avoid having a nasty relationship with you in perpetuity. Buying out your claim would be smart move on his part, and you might even take the money and invite him over for a beer to celebrate the deal.

Tokyo should offer to sell for another reason. If China refused, it would look like Beijing was spoiling for a fight, and unwilling to solve the matter in a reasonable way. That outcome would be a victory for Japan, because it is in their interest to be seen as the reasonable party in this dispute. Why? Because if China's power continues to rise, a key feature of East Asian diplomacy will be how different actors inside and outside the region perceive the intentions of the various players. China will want to portray the United States and its various regional allies as the main source of confrontation or instability, because that will make other states less likely to join with the United States in balancing China. By contrast, the more that Beijing is perceived as bellicose, ambitious, and prone to throwing its weight around, the easier it will be for the United States to maintain its Asian partnerships and the more that other states in East and Southeast Asia will be inclined to cooperate with each other despite their economic ties to China and their various disputes with each other. The spat over the Senkakus provides both Japan and China with an opportunity to show how reasonable they can be. And by doing so, they give the other side a chance to blow it by being recalcitrant or greedy.

By the way, I'm betting that none of these things will happen: Japan won't offer to sell and if it does, China will refuse to buy. Which is one of the many reasons why I believe security competition in East Asia will continue to increase.

 UPDATE:  A well-informed commenter called me yesterday and said I had missed a key element in this dispute: China doesn't care about the islands per se; it is more interested in the resources that may exist in their vicinity (oil, gas, fish, etc.) and wants possession in order to extend its "exclusive economic zone."  This is a good point, but it is not a barrier to a financial solution to the dispute.  If there are valuable resources and China wants them, Japan can just raise the price, or agree to sell in exchange for some cash up front and a percentage of future revenues (say, for the next fifty years or so).  In other words, there's in principle no reason this couldn't be handled through a process of bargaining and side payments.  But as I said, I still don't think it will get resolved this way.

ANTOINE BOUTHIER/AFP/GettyImages

Stephen M. Walt

How (not) to hide the elephant in the room

The esteemed CEO here at FP Inc., David Rothkopf, thinks Benjamin Netanyahu has finally killed off the Israel lobby. This step was probably unnecessary, however, because Rothkopf also thinks the lobby never existed or if it did, had very little influence.

Rothkopf is surely right in saying that Netanyahu has overplayed his hand in recent months. He is also correct to remind readers that AIPAC and the other key organizations in the lobby do not get everything they want. (No serious person ever said it did, of course.) His attempt to slay the supposed "myth" of the Israel lobby is unconvincing, however, as it rests mostly on misrepresenting what others have said and ignores the overwhelming evidence that groups like AIPAC, some other organizations, and a few individuals are in fact an important force in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. But his article deserves to be read carefully anyway, because it provides a primer on how Israel's defenders are now trying to hide the elephant in the room.

Step 1: Always portray discussions of the lobby's influence in the most extreme and easily ridiculed form. The first ploy is to suggest that people who write about the lobby think it is "all-powerful," that it "controls" U.S. foreign policy, or that it is responsible for every single problem in the Middle East. Use phrases like "Super K-streeters" to lampoon the idea that there is in fact a well-organized interest group trying to reinforce the "special relationship" on a daily basis. Or use words like "conspiracy" or "cabal" to hint that anyone who talks about the lobby is really just channeling discredited and venal anti-Jewish stereotypes.

A variation on this tactic is to suggest that such writers also see the lobby as a single monolithic organization, or that they believe "all Jews think alike." Pay no attention to the fact that serious scholars and journalists who do write about the lobby's influence have rejected all of these views; in fact, they've said the exact opposite. In short, start by erecting a straw man and then attack it.

Step 2: State or imply that anyone who writes critically about the Israel lobby is an anti-semite or a self-hating Jew. This is of course an old stratagem designed to silence anyone who thinks about raising the subject. It's not as effective as it used to be, because it was been used so widely and so inappropriately in the past, but it's still a key part of the playbook. As Rothkopf writes in this most recent piece, the Israel lobby "is just a boogie-man cooked up to serve the nasty agenda of people all too eager to sacrifice the truth on the altar of their prejudices." There's really nothing to see here, folks, and if you think you do see something, you must be a bigot.

Step 3. Studiously ignore all of the politicians and commentators who have openly testified to the lobby's influence. Such as the following well-known Israel-haters:

Bill Clinton: AIPAC is "stunningly effective. . . better than anyone at lobbying in this town."

Jeffrey Goldberg: AIPAC is a "leviathan among lobbies."

Rep. Lee Hamilton: "There's no lobby group that matches it . . . they're in a class by themselves."

Sen. Harry Reid: "I can't think of a policy organization in the country as well-organized and respected as AIPAC."

Rep. Newt Gingrich: "AIPAC is the most effective general interest group . . . . across the entire planet."

Sen. Barry Goldwater: "I was never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby. . .It's the most influential crowd in Congress and America by far."

Sen. Fritz Hollings: "You can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here [on Capitol Hill]."

Alan Dershowitz: "My generation of Jews . . .became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy."

Aaron David Miller: "Today you cannot be successful in American politics and not be good on Israel. And AIPAC plays a key role in making that happen."

Step 4: Focus attention on those occasional moments when Israel and the lobby don't get their way, and ignore all the other times that they do. Rothkopf's main piece of evidence that the lobby is a minor force is Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to get the United States to commit itself to a preventive war on Israel's behalf. That is one hell of an ask, of course, and sometimes when you demand the moon you don't get it. As Matt Duss tweeted yesterday, by this logic, the cancellation of the F-22 proves that there's no defense lobby either.

Netanyahu may not get his war with Iran, but he and his predecessors still get a lot of other things that no other country receives: $3 to 4 billion in aid each year for country that now ranks 27th in the world in per capita income, reliable diplomatic protection (including an endless stream of U.N. security council vetoes that place us at odds with our other democratic allies), plus a parade of prominent politicians delivering pandering speeches at the annual AIPAC policy conference and the opportunity to address joint sessions of Congress more often than any other world leaders. But wait, there's more! You also get the United States turning a blind eye toward Israel's nuclear program, and U.S. officials offering only the mildest of complaints when Israel builds another settlement, bombs Gaza, or kills an American peace activist. Does anyone seriously believe that the political clout of AIPAC and other "pro-Israel" organizations (including a few Christian Zionist groups) has nothing to do with all this?

I agree with Rothkopf that Netanyahu overplayed his hand badly, and that this incident does reveal both the limits of the lobby's power and (perhaps) some diminution of its influence overall. The declining influence may also be due to the fact that it is becoming harder to justify the special relationship after forty-plus years of occupation, and when Israel's own political order is moving in worrisome directions. It is also harder to defend that relationship when the costs to the United States -- in terms of rising anti-Americanism and declining influence in the region -- are more apparent. The special relationship isn't the only reason for those trends, but it is surely one of them, as former U.S. CENTCOM commanders have repeatedly said.

But there's another factor at work, which is not incompatible with this view, and that is the fact we are now getting a much more open discussion of these issues. Why? Because those of us who have been done serious research on the Israel lobby have presented an accurate and nuanced view of the lobby's influence and its limits and the negative impact of that influence on the United States and Israel. All someone has to do is read these works to see that they were not the bigoted screeds that Rothkopf and other critics described. And once people showed what was going on, others could see it and start to talk about it too. Netanyahu's humiliating smackdown of Obama over the settlement question and the two-state solution made this even more apparent to anyone with eyes, as Peter Beinart has documented quite convincingly, and his more recent antics over Iran just drove the point home.

Facts are stubborn things, and no amount of dust-kicking and hand-waving can prevent more and more people -- including Jews like Peter Beinart and M.J. Rosenberg and philo-semites like Andrew Sullivan and me -- from pointing them out. If AIPAC and its allies are in fact beginning to lose some of their clout, the recent emergence of a somewhat more open discourse on this question is at least partially responsible. 

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