China Threatens a Bold Grab for Japanese Territory This Month. Who's Next? | Opinion

On Tuesday, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono at a press conference announced the Self-Defense Force, essentially Japan's military, would work with the country's Coast Guard in protecting the Senkaku Islands. His comments were in response to increased Chinese provocations around those uninhabited features.

Why are these eight rocks in the East China Sea of any concern? They could trigger history's next great conflict, perhaps as early as this month.

China is determined to take the Senkakus. On August 2, Sankei News, the conservative-leaning Japanese newspaper, reported that Beijing had informed Tokyo that a large number of Chinese fishing vessels and government ships might, at the end of a fishing-suspension period on the 16th of this month, enter territorial waters around those islands. (China calls them the Diaoyus.)

China's officials, according to Sankei, informed Tokyo that it "is not entitled to demand" the boats leave, a clear Chinese assertion of sovereignty over the islands. The University of Miami's June Teufel Dreyer, a Japan specialist, told Newsweek this statement is "new and different and no good."

Hundreds of fishing vessels making their way to a group of uninhabited features might not sound like much, but in effect Beijing warned Toyko it would soon pry them from Japan.

China and Taiwan both claim the specks, which have been under Japanese control since the U.S. turned over administrative rights to Tokyo pursuant to a 1971 agreement. Washington did that when it reverted sovereignty over the nearby Ryukyu chain to Japan.

Taiwan has not pressed its claim vigorously, but China, which prior to that agreement recognized the islands as Japanese, has since gone on a bender. For the last eight years, Beijing, in especially belligerent moves, has been sending vessels and aircraft into Japan's territorial water and airspace.

On August 2, Chinese vessels set a record of 111-straight days of incursions. They would still be around the Senkakus today, except they fled to avoid Typhoon No. 4. In May and June, China chased away Japanese fishing boats that were in Japan's territorial waters.

Over time, Beijing has been sending larger vessels to the islands.

Because of persistent efforts to control the surrounding seas, some expect China to soon declare "administrative control" over the Senkakus.

The situation is now so serious that the United States is openly concerned. On July 31, Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, commander of U.S. Forces in Japan, pledged to help Tokyo monitor the islands. "The United States is 100 percent, absolutely steadfast in its commitment to help the government of Japan with the situation in the Senkakus," he declared. "That is 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Although the U.S. has not taken a position on the competing territorial claims—China's assertions of sovereignty are exceedingly weak as a matter of international law—Washington has nonetheless confirmed it will defend the islands. The islands are, according to several U.S. statements, covered by Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty.

Tokyo has every reason to invoke the treaty to demand American help to defend the outcroppings. Japan, after all, is nothing more than an archipelago, so the loss of islands would set a grievous precedent.

Moreover, Beijing has made it clear it wants more than just these eight islets, so Japan has to take a stand somewhere. Ominously, China, for more than a decade, has been eyeing the entire Ryukyu chain, pushing the notion that these strategic islands belong to China.

It's clear why Japan would want America's help, but is it in America's interest to extend it? To put this another way, why should the U.S. go to war with China over the Senkakus?

For one thing, American forces are based in the Ryukyus, especially Okinawa.

Yet there is a far more fundamental reason. For more than a century, American policymakers have drawn the U.S. western defense perimeter off the coast of East Asia, and Japan is the "cornerstone" ally in that defense line. Washington believes, correctly, that it is better to face an Asian aggressor over there than near Hawaii or off the coast of California.

That defense perimeter is now in danger from an aggressive China. Unfortunately, accommodation with Beijing is not possible, something especially evident from America's failure to protect Scarborough Shoal, a feature that was thought to be part of another American treaty ally, the Philippines.

In early 2012, both Chinese and Philippine vessels swarmed the shoal, located 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon—and 550 nautical miles from the closest Chinese landmass. Washington then brokered a deal for both sides to withdraw their craft. Only Manila complied.

To avoid confrontation with a militant Beijing, the Obama administration did nothing to enforce the agreement. What the White House did, by doing nothing, was empower the most belligerent elements in the Chinese political system by showing everybody else that aggression in fact worked.

Feeble Washington policy had immediate—and disadvantageous—consequences. Chinese ruler Xi Jinping, emboldened by success, just ramped up attempts to seize more territory, such as Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea from the Philippines. He also began reclamation and militarization of features in the Spratly chain—and Xi significantly increased pressure on the Senkakus.

The U.S., like Japan, can see that China will not stop until it is stopped. As a Japanese white paper recently noted, China is "relentless."

At this moment, China's arrogant, confident generals and admirals know no limits. They have a blood lust, itching to use new weapons. By their own admission, they are spoiling for a fight. "Their nationalistic ambition will not end," said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat to The New York Times. "I am very concerned, and nobody can stop it, as they couldn't stop us in Manchuria in the 1930s."

Japanese officials have not yet given up sweet-talking Beijing, however. Tokyo had "strongly requested" Chinese ships "stop approaching Japanese fishing boats and quickly leave Japanese territory," said Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary, last month. "We would like to continue responding firmly in a calm manner."

Calm is needed, of course, but so is firmness. "It is time for Japanese and American Marines to go to the Senkakus to engage in some 'scientific research,' perhaps to build a permanent 'ecological monitoring station' with missiles that can skim across the sea and hit invading ships," Richard Fisher of the Virginia-based International Assessment and Strategy Center told Newsweek.

Of course, no one in Tokyo or Washington wants to fight China, yet an aggressive Beijing has put all nations, near and far, on notice. The Chinese leadership believes it has the right and obligation to rule tianxia—"all under Heaven"—and is not leaving its targets much choice.

China just announced it wants to take apart Japan. If successful, it will look farther east, all the way across the Pacific.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.