This week’s encouraging news—that the U.S. affirmed its security commitment to Japan under the 1960 bilateral defense treaty—sends exactly the right signal to China: that the U.S. will push back on Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the region. Most notably, Washington went far beyond long-standing ambiguous diplomatic statements to publicly state for the first time that the Senkakus (which the Chinese call the Diaoyutai islands) were specifically protected under the defense accord.

China claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, but the Japanese have administered them since the United States ceded control of them to Japan in 1972. China’s claim is viewed by some as a front for exerting its control over any possible resources in the islands’ waters (including fishing grounds and potential hydrocarbon deposits).

China’s territorial assertiveness has been on full display lately. After Japan detained a Chinese fisherman for venturing in the islands’ waters, Beijing demanded his unconditional release or retaliation that would cause serious damage to their relationship, and it has suspended its rare earth metal exports to Japan. Its premier, Wen Jibao, even went so far as to snub Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Khan at a meeting at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, China has also argued that the United States and the Republic of Korea should not conduct military exercises in the Yellow Sea, although South Korea borders that body of water, and it is recognized by all nations as international waters.

In the face of such expansive claims, pushing back on China is clearly the right approach, as Heritage Foundation’s Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, Kim Holmes explains. A more conciliatory American approach has not only encouraged China to become more belligerent, but it has also worried our friends and allies about how seriously we take our security commitments.

Yet all is still not well. The Obama Administration just muddied the message by signaling it might loosen restrictions imposed on U.S. arms sales to China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre so as to help get clean up equipment to oil spills. Beijing quickly welcomed this news, saying it hopes the U.S. will “continue to take measures to relax high-tech export restrictions to China.” This, on the eve of Defense Secretary Gates’ military-to-military visit to China but just after Beijing put the wife of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo under house arrest.

China’s intentions are no clearer than the message coming from Washington. Until China’s actions change, it is far too early to let up on China.

Lee Lukoff is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: