As 2014 comes to a close and Americans reflect on the major world events of the past twelve months, the re-election of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may not make any top ten lists. However, this election may go down as one of the most important developments in U.S.-Japan relations since the end of the Second World War. Mr. Abe has called for a number of bold new changes in Japan, including revisions to Japan's pacifist constitution, a Trans-Pacific Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement with the U.S., and the empowerment of women to help strengthen the Japanese economy. Underpinning these important policy changes is a shared concern for the rise of China in the region and the future of America's commitment to defend Japan in this shifting power dynamic.

Having just visited Japan as part of a diplomatic outreach effort to strengthen ties between our two countries, it was illuminating to observe how important the U.S. collective self-defense commitment is to the Japanese people. The main issue is China's increasing assertiveness over the Senkaku Islands (China refers to them as the Diayus). The manner in which this dispute over a few uninhabited rocks is decided will likely shape the future of peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

The dispute over the Senkakus is a powderkeg, rooted in historical animosity, nationalism, and realpolitik between the second and third largest economies in the world. Nowhere on the planet is there a dispute brewing between two larger economic giants. Japan's legal claim to these islands dates back to 1885 and has since been bolstered by the terms of American-written post-World War II treaties (The Potsdam Declaration of 1945 and the San Francisco Treaty of 1951), which stipulated the range of Japanese territory after the war to include "such minor islands as we [the United States and Japan] determine" shall remain under Japanese sovereignty. The Senkakus were included in these "minor islands". The treaties coupled with a Japanese commitment to pacifism enshrined in its post-war Constitution served as the foundation stone for Japan to retain control over these islands while the United States stationed its forces in Okinawa to protect the status quo.

China's recent claims to the Senkakus (and other islands in the East and South China Sea) are threatening this status quo. With China's rise as an economic juggernaut, the military leadership in China has become more assertive about China's territorial claims to these islands, leading to numerous "accidental" intrusions in the area of the Senkakus. According to the Japanese Coast Guard, Chinese vessels are spotted daily hovering around the Senkakus apparently engaged in a form of incremental "gunboat diplomacy". The real fear is that such intrusions might eventually cause a minor police incident for the coast guard to blow up into a full scale war at sea. Should this conflagration spread to other islands, U.S. forces in Okinawa would eventually be dragged into the fray. China's claim to the Senkakus is based mainly on historical maps and its so-called "nine-dotted line" policy extending its claims to islands in the South China Sea to include the Senkakus.

This territorial dispute has not been submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). China has stated that such claims are not suited to modern Western legal principles, and Japan has taken the position that "there exists no issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved" (even though Japan has requested ICJ arbitration in its dispute with South Korea over Takeshima). China's refusal to consent to the ICJ's jurisdiction in other island disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines does not bode well for Japan and suggests that an unreciprocated Japanese offer to submit the Senkakus to ICJ arbitration might even be viewed as weakness on Japan's part, or at least a tacit acknowledgment by the Japanese Government that a genuine dispute exists.

Enforcing the rule of law is pivotal not only for Japan, but for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region as well. The U.S. Government must play a more active role through the United Nations and other bodies to ensure that Japan's security is a top priority and that the rule of law will govern the island dispute until a peaceful resolution is achieved.

With a general election not required for another four years, Mr. Abe could become the longest serving Japanese prime minister in history. His grandfather served as prime minister shortly after the Second World War when the U.S. commitment to defend Japan's interests was first made. It would certainly be viewed in Japan as a valuable gesture if the Obama Administration reminded Mr. Abe that this commitment is still intact.

Originally published on Tennessean on Dec. 31, 2014.

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