I should address President Obama’s explicit statement in Japan that the Senkakus were covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty.
Nothing particularly new here; Secretary of State Clinton affirmed coverage in 2010 and I think it’s been reaffirmed incessantly since then.
Now, if President Obama had declared that the US regarded the Senkakus as Japanese sovereign territories (he didn’t; he carefully described them as territories administered by Japan), the PRC would have justifiably gone apeshit.
I am getting a little tired of repeating this point, but Nixon returned the Senkakus to Japanese administrative control with the understanding that Japan would negotiate their sovereignty with “China”, especially Taiwan which, by any interpretation is the most plausible candidate (see Yabuki Susumu & Mark Selden here). By nationalizing three of the islands in 2012, the Japanese government basically spat on that deal and provided a certain degree of encouragement to PRC hopes that the US might act as a real “honest broker” over the islands. Not to be, in my opinion.
If one wants to explore the real mystery of the Senkakus, their role in Japanese security adventurism, and what the PRC expects of the tenor and integrity of US-PRC relations in a Hillary Clinton presidency, I invite readers to reflect on this passage from the Japan Times in August 2010 (link no longer available; if anyone can find it behind the paywall in the archive, please let me know):
The Obama administration has decided not to state explicitly that the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japan’s control but claimed by China, are subject to the Japan-US security treaty, in a shift from the position of George W Bush, sources said Monday.
The administration of Barack Obama has already notified Japan of the change in policy, but Tokyo may have to take counter-measures in light of China’s increasing activities in the East China Sea, according to the sources.
In other words, the Obama administration was ready to sidle closer to the PRC’s side on the Senkaku Islands. But a few weeks later, PRC relations blew up with the detention of the Chinese fishing boat off the Senkakus, the rare earth “crisis”, and Hillary Clinton’s affirmation that the Senkakus were, surprise, covered by the treaty. I think history will judge that the whole episode was a “counter-measure”, a provocation if you will, by Clinton and Seiji Maehara (Maehara insisted over the objections of the cabinet that the Chinese captain be tried in Japanese court, guaranteeing an international incident).