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The Senkaku paradox: Risking great power war over small stakes

Past Event

On April 29,  Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon and Rachel Martin, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, launched O’Hanlon’s latest book, “The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes.”

China claims the tiny and uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Yet, Japan also claims them, and the islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. If China were to seize one or more of these islands, what should the United States do? Presumably, the United States would be obligated to come to Japan’s assistance to reestablish control of the occupied territory. However, if the conflict escalated, a major war between nuclear-armed countries could ensue—all over a few barren pieces of land with little, if any, inherent importance.

This is what Michael O’Hanlon calls the Senkaku paradox—how the logical application of a formal U.S. security commitment could lead to war that is disproportionate to the immediate stakes. The Senkaku scenario is only one example of a broader set of scenarios that for instance, could involve small-scale Russian attacks against NATO allies of the United States. With the Obama and Trump administrations’ renewed emphasis on great power competition, this issue has become even more urgent.

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