The United States’ promises to protect its allies in East Asia underwrite the region’s security. Yet whispers about the credibility of those promises are growing louder. China, meanwhile, continues to assert its claims to disputed islands in the East China and South China Seas through so-called salami tactics: making one provocative move after another, as if taking a salami slice by slice. Each provocation slightly enhances China’s position but is too small to merit a forceful response. Many commentators argue that the United States must enhance deterrence by making clearer and stronger commitments to its allies.

But the United States will not solve its problems in East Asia by declaring itself in lockstep with its allies. For guidance, U.S. policymakers should instead look to a previous case that the United States managed successfully: West Berlin during the Cold War. In that case, a major power -- the Soviet Union -- was also pushing, pressuring, and trying to divide the United States from its allies. Washington solved the problem by standing firm in the face of both sides. The Kennedy administration clarified the vital interests that it would fight to protect, while explaining to its West German ally that the United States would not fight to achieve every German goal in the standoff.


In the coming years, territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will create tension, crisis, and possible conflict in East Asia. In the South China Sea, Beijing asserts sovereignty over an area (enclosed by the so-called nine-dashed line) in which six nearby countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam -- maintain competing territorial claims of their own. In the East China Sea, China has claimed sovereignty over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands).

It will prove difficult to settle these disputes through negotiations; the countries involved have issued a bewildering tangle of competing legal and historical claims, and the contested islets have become a rallying cry for nationalist politicians. Moreover, many of the territories in question come with rich fishing grounds and are thought to lie near substantial oil and natural gas deposits.

These disputes have intensified in recent years. In the South China Sea, for example, China began drilling for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam in May 2014, and armed Chinese Coast Guard ships menaced Vietnamese ships that approached the area. A Chinese vessel nearly collided with an American one, the U.S.S. Cowpens, last December. Since 2012, Beijing has kept the Philippines out of the disputed Scarborough Shoal; it is now trying to push the Philippines from its tenuous perch in the Ayungin reef as well. 

The East China Sea has also grown more dangerous. In the past few years, Japan has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets to fend off Chinese aircraft encroaching on disputed territory. Last year, a Chinese vessel locked weapons-guiding radar on a Japanese destroyer. China also flew an unmanned aerial vehicle over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, prompting protests in Japan and an order from the country’s prime minister to shoot down drones that ignored warnings to leave Japanese airspace. Beijing said that it would view such a move as an “act of war,” to which it would respond with “decisive action.” 

As East Asia’s territorial disputes heat up, Washington’s alliances with Japan and the Philippines risk drawing United States into a regional war. This is a new development; during the Cold War, the risk of entanglement in these alliances ran in the other direction. Because Japan and the Philippines hosted strategically significant U.S. military bases, those countries found themselves in Soviet crosshairs. Frequent crises between the superpowers, over Berlin, Cuba, and Taiwan, threatened to escalate to war that would include nuclear strikes against Japanese and Philippine territory. Furthermore, Tokyo faced constant pressure from Washington to increase its role in the alliance, and to participate in U.S. military adventures in such places as the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. 

Today, however, it’s the Americans who fear entanglement, in an unwanted and potentially devastating war with China. Given this profound change, it is unsurprising that U.S. allies question Washington’s commitment to their security. In March, for example, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun discussed how increasing tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu were leading many Japanese observers to cite “the unreliability of Japan’s main ally.”

Responding to such doubts, Washington has reiterated its commitment to Japan’s security in broad terms. U.S. President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have announced that although Washington does not take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, its security guarantee for Japan would apply to attacks against the islands because they are “administered by Japan.” In the South China Sea, Washington has similarly declared its neutrality on territorial claims, but it has not stated that the United States would support the Philippines militarily in the event of conflict.

This approach only invites more challenges. Simply declaring that the United States will defend areas administered by Japan does not address the core strategic problem that Washington and Tokyo face -- China can still use salami tactics to harass and provoke. In Washington, such acts will simply be seen as annoyances; but in Tokyo, they will be perceived as infringements on Japanese sovereignty, and will continue to raise doubts among Japanese that the Americans may not protect them. As a result, the alliance will weaken.


All this has a familiar ring. The U.S. predicament in East Asia recalls the late 1950s, when the Soviets and their East German allies began to challenge Western access to the highways, or Autobahns, that connected the Federal Republic of Germany to the isolated city of West Berlin. The West Germans saw these actions as dire threats to their claim on West Berlin and their hope for eventual reunification. Accordingly, West German officials made the preservation of access to the Autobahns a key barometer of NATO’s credibility and value.

At one point during the crisis, the Soviets demanded that Allied convoys present documents to be stamped by East German (rather than Soviet) border guards. Allowing East Germans to stamp the papers, West German officials said, gave de facto recognition to the East German state, and implied that East Germany could decide not to grant access to the roads in the future. West Germany, supported by some senior U.S. officials, declared that this seemingly trivial issue was central to NATO’s credibility, and that the United States must take a firm stance -- to the point of risking what would have been a nuclear war. 

After months of wrangling with its allies, the Kennedy administration said no -- to both the Soviets and the West Germans. The allies’ core interests (in the president’s words, “our presence in Berlin, and our access to Berlin”) were nonnegotiable, and the United States would fight if necessary to defend them. However, as one senior administration official explained, the United States was “not prepared to risk war over rubber stamps.” Whether the Soviets wanted to imprint paperwork with red or blue stamps, in triplicate or in duplicate, or if they wanted Soviet, East German, or any other guards to stamp them, was beside the point. 

The West Germans were initially unhappy. But the United States’ clear and reasonable position on Berlin, underscored by the military reinforcements that Kennedy immediately sent to Europe, essentially ended the long-running crisis -- and Soviet salami tactics there -- once and for all. And by distinguishing between core and symbolic issues, the United States laid the foundation for a stronger alliance: one in which each side believed that its partner would fight if necessary, because the alliance was built on shared vital interests, not on symbols that mattered principally to only one side.

In East Asia today, the challenge for Washington is to distinguish vital U.S. interests from the rubber stamps -- and to convey those distinctions to U.S. allies and partners. Here’s one way that might be done:

In the East China Sea, the United States has committed itself to defending the territory that Japan administers, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Chinese provocations -- such as flying aircraft over the islands or sending ships through disputed waters -- are annoyances. They do not seize for Beijing the finite benefits of ownership. But if China were to build civilian or military structures on those islands, encamp troops or establish settlements, or extract finite resources from the islands, Beijing would be taking assets that Japan believes it owns. If China were to build a pier on one of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, for instance, the United States should help Japan disassemble it -- just as they would if China built a pier on Okinawa.

The situation is different in the South China Sea, as Washington has not promised to defend the Philippines’ territorial claims there. Whether the U.S.-Philippine alliance is sufficiently important to justify a U.S. guarantee for Manila’s claims remains an open question. But one can still distinguish symbolic issues from important American interests when it comes to Philippine claims in the South China Sea. When Beijing harasses Philippine ships, it’s regrettable. But when China seeks to reap the benefits of ownership -- by establishing settlements and extracting resources, for example -- it crosses a meaningful threshold. 

The key insight here is not what constitutes core interests versus rubber stamps -- but simply that Washington must distinguish between them. Today, it has become commonplace for pundits to argue that everything matters, everything is interconnected, and slippery slopes abound. But everything doesn’t matter equally. The brilliance of the Kennedy administration’s approach to Berlin was that it simultaneously neutralized Soviet salami tactics and strengthened the U.S. alliance with West Germany. Honest talk between the United States and its partners in East Asia could similarly strengthen their relationships -- while thwarting China’s efforts to divide them.

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  • JENNIFER LIND is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
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