China-Japan Ties Further Strained Over 'Threat' Remarks

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - A year marked by seething tensions between Asia's two major powers looks set to end in the same way, with Beijing bristling after senior Japanese politicians described China as a military threat.

The fresh exchange of words comes at a time China is at pains to assure the outside world that its rapid rise poses no threats -- military or economic -- to others. Beijing's State Council released a 32-page white paper this week making that point.

"To stick to the road of peaceful development is the inevitable way for China to attain national prosperity and strength and its people's happiness," it said, given what it called a "solemn promise" that China's ascent would never be a threat to anyone.

But the document made no reference to Taiwan, and with China's refusal to rule out the use of force to prevent any formal breakaway bid by the island -- which it claims as a renegade province -- others in the region and beyond may not be easily convinced.

An increasing number of outside assessments, by observers ranging from the Pentagon to leading think tanks, have raised concerns about China's rise, particularly because of its growth in military spending.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, during a visit to Singapore last summer, pointed to the fact that China deploys hundreds of missiles facing Taiwan and wondered why China was spending so much on weaponry despite being threatened by no nation.

Another such observation came this week from Japan's newly appointed foreign minister, Taro Aso, who told reporters that Japan's neighbor had "one billion people and nuclear bombs" and that its "military spending has been growing by two digits every year for 17 consecutive years."

An absence of "transparency" in China's weapons expenditure fanned distrust, he added, saying that China was "becoming a considerable threat."

The transparency issue refers to concerns that China's actual military spending is considerably higher than it admits. Unlike some other countries, China does not include in its reported budget expenditures foreign weapons procurement and funding to support nuclear weapons stockpiles.

For 2005, China said its military budget had risen to $29.9 billion -- about double the figure it gave for 2000. But a Pentagon report estimated its actual spending for 2005 could be as high as $90 billion. (Japan's defense budget for 2005 was about $44 billion.)

Aso is described by Japanese commentators as a "hawk," but earlier, a similar comment came from the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Seiji Maehara, who during a lecture on Dec. 8 in Washington also described China's military expansion as a threat.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a press briefing that Aso's remarks were irresponsible, and he questioned their purpose.

"China's development has made commonly acknowledged contributions towards the world's peace and stability, bringing East Asian countries -- including Japan -- great development opportunities."


Economic ties between the two top East Asian economies are indeed strong, and China is Japan's biggest trading partner.

At the same time, however, diplomatic relations are fraught with sensitivities, fueled by disputes over territory and energy resources, lingering Chinese resentment over Japanese aggression in the last century, territorial disputes and its suspicions about Japan's new assertiveness in regional and global affairs.

China accuses Japan of reluctance to face up to abuses perpetrated by its armed forces before and during World War II. China was incensed this year by Japanese textbooks that critics say whitewash Japan's war atrocities, as well as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a Tokyo shrine where war criminals are commemorated among the war dead.

The textbook issue triggered angry and sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities last April, while China responded to Koizumi's most recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last October -- his fifth since taking office -- by refusing to hold direct meetings between leaders on the sidelines of a regional summit.

For its part, Japan was irate when its long-held dream to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council was denied this year, largely thanks to a campaign by China.

Beijing attributed its opposition to what it called Japan's failure to properly atone for its wartime past, although some analysts also cited a Chinese reluctance to lose its status as Asia's only representative of the current five permanent council members.

Some observers see nationalism on the rise in both China and Japan.

China's communist rulers have frequently stoked up nationalist sentiment in recent years, a trend particularly evident in the government-permitted protests against Japan this year, demonstrations against the U.S. after the accidental 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and the 2001 collision between a U.S. spy plane and Chinese fighter jet.

Achievements in China's space program and Beijing's success in bidding to host the 2008 Olympics have also fueled national pride.

In Japan, a shift away from the constraints of a post-World War II pacifist constitution has seen Koizumi deploy troops to Iraq -- albeit in a non-combat capacity -- agree to cooperate with the U.S. ballistic missile shield program and adopt a more assertive tone in security agreements with Washington.

Chinese scholars have attributed these changes to a rise in Japanese nationalism or even a resurgence of right-wing militarism.

Tokyo attributes them to the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea and a need to play a bigger role in global campaigns against terrorism.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow