China Unhappy About Japan's More Assertive Approach to Defense

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Japanese officials are mulling a U.S. request for the two allies to discuss joint military cooperation in case of a future clash between China and Taiwan, the Japanese news agency Kyodo reported Tuesday.

The move could boost ever-present underlying tensions between China and Japan, which are historical enemies, longstanding rivals and economic partners.

China regards its dispute with Taiwan as an internal matter, and it strongly objects to what it considers outside interference in its domestic affairs.

The report comes at a time when Beijing has complained about changes to Japan's defense doctrine, which for the first time identifies China as a potential security threat.

Citing government sources in Tokyo, Kyodo said the U.S. proposal was made at a bilateral meeting in Washington last month.

Defense guidelines were drawn up between the U.S. and Japan in the late 1990s, covering joint activities between U.S. and Japanese forces should an emergency occur in areas surrounding Japan.

Because of China's sensitivities, Japan intentionally left it unclear as to whether Taiwan was included in the geographical scope of the agreement.

If Taiwan was included in Japan's "surrounding areas" for the purposes of the guidelines, Japan could be drawn into any future conflict in which the U.S. sided with Taiwan against Chinese aggression.

It is this ambiguity that the U.S. now reportedly wants to clear up.

Kyodo said participants at the November meeting had shared concerns about China's economic growth, military buildup, and spreading regional political influence. They discussed the need to "guide China in a constructive direction," it quoted official sources as saying.

The U.S. called for dialogue to discuss measures the two countries should take in the event of a cross-Taiwan Strait crisis, including military action.

Japan's pacifist constitution, drawn up by the U.S. after half a century of Japanese aggression that culminated in World War II, renounces the use of force to settle international disputes.

Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Tokyo has been edging towards a more assertive stance, a shift seen most clearly in the dispatch of non-combat troops to help in the postwar rebuilding effort in Iraq. Though unpopular among some quarters at home, the deployment was extended last week.

Last Friday, Japan's cabinet approved changes to its defense policy over the next 10 years reflecting a further moving away from a strictly non-interventionist approach to foreign policy.

The National Defense Program Outline calls for a change of mindset to deal with modern-day threats such as missile strikes or terrorist attacks, by streamlining the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and developing "multi-function, flexible defense capabilities."

"From now on, we shall place more importance on our ability to effectively deal with threats instead of maintaining a policy of deterrence, as in the past," Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono said after approval was given.

The defense program reaffirmed the notion that Japan regards North Korea as a threat, but for the first time also identified China and its military buildup as posing a regional risk.

"It is necessary to watch China's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the modernization of its navy and air force, and its attempts to expand marine activities, it said.

The program also confirmed that Japan would move to the development stage of a joint ballistic missile defense (BMD) system with the U.S.

In order to do so, Japan will ease its self-imposed ban on exporting weapons, put in place during the 1960s and 1970s.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said in a statement that Japan would continue strictly to control weapons exports.

"But joint development and production of weapons with the United States for the missile defense program are exceptions to Japan's arms exports ban, on condition that they are strictly managed," he added.

President Bush is expected to announce that a limited BMD is up and running by the end of this year.

Japan's need for such an umbrella was demonstrated in 1998, when Pyongyang test-fired a missile that flew over Japan before splashing down in the Pacific.

Political tensions

Although economic ties between China and Japan are booming -- bilateral trade hit a record $130 billion in 2003 -- political relations have been deteriorating.

Koizumi has ruffled feathers by paying annual visits since 2001 to a national shrine to Japan's war dead -- a site seen by victims of Japan's military adventurism as glorifying its aggressive past.

They also have a number of territorial disputes, and Tokyo was incensed last month when China sent a nuclear-powered submarine into Japanese waters near a contested area.

Beijing responded coldly to Japan's new description of China as a regional risk, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue calling the decision "totally groundless and extremely irresponsible."

A commentary carried by the official Xinhua news agency took issue with the perception that China was in the same category as North Korea in Japanese thinking.

While Tokyo and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations, China and Japan signed a treaty of peace and friendship 26 years ago and had very close economic ties, it said.

"The Japanese government's act to play up [the] 'China threat' goes against the two peoples' aspirations for lasting peace and friendship," the commentary said.

It also criticized Japan for "its unbelievably enthusiastic attitude toward a missile defense system."

Beijing is opposed to the BMD plans, although Washington has stressed for years that the shield's aim is to defend the U.S. and its allies against missiles launched by terrorists or rogue states like North Korea, not against missiles belonging to nuclear powers like China and Russia.

South Korea, which shares with China a history of aggression by Imperial Japan, responded to Tokyo's new defense program cautiously.

"Mindful of neighboring countries' concern about past history, Japan should strengthen transparency by contributing to regional and international security," a Foreign Ministry official said in a statement issued in Seoul.

Tokyo should hold security talks with surrounding countries to explain its plans, the official said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow