According to Japanese reports, the amended U.S-.Japan security cooperation guidelines to be announced when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits President Obama at the end of the month could include explicit provisions for the United States to defend the Senkaku island chain from attack. While Japan controls the islands, China also claims them (calling them the Diaoyu), and Tokyo has asked that amended guidelines include an explicit commitment by the U.S. to defend the islands.
This would be an important step beyond what previous commitments stipulate; though President Obama has stated, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reaffirmed last week, that America’s security agreement with Tokyo already obliges it to safeguard all of Japan’s territory including the Senkakus, the islands aren’t actually mentioned in the guidelines. Japan News:
The defense cooperation guidelines stipulate practical role-sharing between the Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces. If the guidelines mention defense of the Japanese islands and islets, it would be clearer in what way U.S. forces will be engaged in the event of such an incident. Thus, the Japanese government has demanded that the guidelines include them. […]
Mainly eyeing the Senkaku Islands, the new guidelines will also reinforce possible actions in a so-called gray zone incident, in which tensions will have dangerously risen without having developed into an armed conflict.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute has seen China and Japan shadowboxing on the seas and in the air, raising fears that an incident could at some point escalate into open conflict. The revised guidelines won’t be unveiled until Abe comes to DC, but if Japanese media has it right and U.S. does explicitly include the islands in the guidelines, Washington will be unambiguously communicating its intent to stand up to Beijing’s increased assertiveness outside its territorial waters.