Much rides on Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Japan, South Korea, and China this week. There is no easy answer to the territorial dispute in the East China Sea between Tokyo and Beijing. But clearly, Washington’s initial desire to stay out of the rising Sino-Japanese conflict is no longer an option. Until China unilaterally declared its Air Defense Identification Zone in late November in an attempt to assert its right over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, U.S. officials had repeatedly stated that Washington remained a neutral party in the dispute. 
The U.S. decision to fly unmanned bombers through China’s Air Defense Identification Zone signals the United States’ commitment to push back on Beijing’s endeavors to claim the disputed islands as their own. It also highlights Washington’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and to come to Tokyo’s defense against Chinese aggression.  Biden’s first task will be to reassure Japan and warn China of that security pact. But Biden will also need to ensure that the United States does not see China purely as a threat, but also as a partner, in ensuring stability in the Asia-Pacific region when he arrives in Beijing.  
Biden must bear in mind that the territorial dispute between Japan and China is far more than a conflict over unmanned islands and their natural resource potential. Rather, it highlights the changing political and economic dynamic between Asia’s two biggest powers. Grievances about the wartime past, accompanied by a surge in national pride, play a key role in stoking the flames of conflict. There may be no easy solution to the dispute, but the United States now has no choice but to engage more actively. 
Upcoming Event:
Sino-Japanese Relations  After the Cold War: Two Tigers Sharing a Mountain
December 12, 2013 4:00 to 5:30pm 
Michael Yahuda, visiting scholar at the Sigur Center of Asian Studies at George Washington University, will examine how politics has shaped the idea of history and identity in both Japan and China. He also explains the role political leadership in each country has played in shaping nationalism in the two countries, and how the evolution of bilateral relations is impacting the politics of economic interdependence.  Yoshihide Soeya, Japan scholar at the Wilson Center and professor of law at Keio University, will be joining Dr. Yahuda as a discussant.