Preventing a China-Japan War Over the Islands: What America Must Do

Protesters shout anti-Japan slogans near the Japanese Consulate General Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in Shanghai, China. The 81st
Protesters shout anti-Japan slogans near the Japanese Consulate General Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in Shanghai, China. The 81st anniversary of a Japanese invasion brought a fresh wave of anti-Japan demonstrations in China on Tuesday, with thousands of protesters venting anger over the colonial past and a current dispute involving contested islands in the East China Sea. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Despite the fact that China and Japan brought their Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute grievances to the U.N. General Assembly last month, there has been little traction at the negotiating table. In fact, the world seems preoccupied with conflicts in the Middle East.

Yet given the level of intensity escalating around the East China Sea island dispute between China and Japan -- with both countries ramping up military presence at sea, engaging in violent protest, pulling out businesses and heckling U.S. diplomatic presence -- it is worth the United States getting more involved. It is worth it for them, too.

The conflict could be devastating to their economies. Trade between Asia's two largest economies has tripled over the past decade to more than $340 billion. China is now Japan's major export market.

As a Japanese American who is one of the members of Congress serving on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, I think it is imperative we keep this conflict from escalating. That doesn't mean we take sides.

In sensitive situations like this, biasing one party helps little in de-escalating potentially violent conflict. It does mean, however, that we need to understand both perspectives before mediating a way forward.

Why should America engage? Not simply because we said we would as we pivoted our foreign relations focus toward the Asia Pacific, but because it's in our financial and diplomatic interests.

First, with economies slowing in China and Japan and shipping routes affected, the effect will be felt soon in the United States.

Second, this is a preventable conflict and a third party is needed before bluster becomes bombings.

So what does engagement look like? For China, these are the "Diaoyu" islands. They were in China's hands long before Japan laid claim to the islands in the late 1800s. For Japan, these are the "Senkaku" islands. Their recent purchase by the Japanese government from a private owner has sparked protests. This conflict is primarily about historic grievances, identity and nationalism.

The U.N. General Assembly would have been the best forum for a conversation on how the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea might apply, but it was not used.

The United States, however, along with several of its European Union allies, is well positioned to convene a constructive conversation on resolving this conflict. If China objects to having the United States do the convening, then Washington can help find another interlocutor. Either way, the dispute is not going away.

If the United States is going to take sides, it would be wise to take both sides.

If this conflict becomes violent on the East China Sea, then we will see shipping thwarted, more factories closed, costs of imports climb and other foreign policy decisions affected.

The time is now for the United States to sit down with China and Japan to chart a way out of this dispute. Waiting is not an option.

Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus' Peace and Security Task Force. This article first ran in San Francisco Chronicle.