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Commentary (February 25, 2005)

US-Japan accord angers China

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

In a move with major strategic implications, Japan and the United States deepened their military alliance by agreeing on a new set of common security objectives aimed, though not spelled out, at containing China's rising military power in the Asia-Pacific region. For the first time, the two issued a joint statement recognizing Taiwan as "a mutual security concern".

Until now, Japan's stance in any conflict over Taiwan has never been officially stated, even though thousands of American troops are stationed on Japanese soil and Washington is obliged under US law to offer Taipei assistance if its security is threatened. Beijing has aimed at least 500 missiles at the island, which it considers an integral part of its territory.

The new initiative, set forth in a statement this past weekend in Washington, is the most important addition in nine years to the US-Japan Security Alliance, considered the linchpin of US interests in East Asia. It reflects growing anxiety about the increasing capability of China's armed forces.

The agreement clearly signals that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has decided that Tokyo must adopt a more assertive stance toward Beijing, finally ending the long-standing policy of seeking to avoid open confrontation with the Middle Kingdom.

Consequently, the joint declaration marks a new low in Sino-Japanese political relations, which are already under immense strain due to a series of recent political, territorial and economic disputes.

For its part, Beijing views the accord as a sign that Tokyo is actively siding with Washington over Taiwan. China has repeatedly threatened to use force if Taipei moves decisively toward independence.

The Japan-US declaration was angrily condemned by Beijing and has heightened tensions with Tokyo. In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, "The Chinese government and people resolutely oppose the United States and Japan in issuing any bilateral document concerning China's Taiwan, which meddles in the internal affairs of China, and hurts China's sovereignty."

The joint document was signed in Washington by Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Defense Agency Director General Yoshinori Ono, along with their US counterparts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The agreement should allow Tokyo to further extend its military cooperation with Washington, which is currently inhibited by Japan's pacifist constitution. It will also greatly increase pressure for a revision of the war-renouncing article of the constitution, something the nationalist Koizumi administration is keen to achieve. The prime minister wants to change the current limited status of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and convert them into a full-fledged military, a move Beijing vehemently opposes.

Some regional analysts take a broader view of the initiative, believing it signals that Japan and the US intend to establish a more formal regional power bloc as a counterweight to an emerging alliance between Russia and China.

Ryoji Yamauchi, a political commentator and president of Asahikawa University, said, "The document is a very significant step in Koizumi's plan to end Japan's current standing as a pacifist nation and transform it into a more assertive military force in the region."

Agreement vague on specifics
Although the two nations agreed to intensify discussions on the realignment of US forces in Japan, they failed to specify how they would enhance defense cooperation, making only vague references to the shared roles of their respective militaries. The exact nature of the new framework will probably be ironed out in the coming months, with a final agreement expected to be signed by US President George W Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi in July at the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Scotland. Secretary Rice is tentatively scheduled to travel to Japan in March for further discussions.

To soften their implied criticisms of Beijing, both sides reiterated their belief in a "one-China policy" and their commitment to continuing to develop a "cooperative relationship with China". Washington has recognized Taiwan as part of China since in 1979, and before the US-Japan statement was issued, Rice emphasized that there would "be no attempt to change the status quo [between China and Taiwan] unilaterally".

Besides focusing on Taiwan policy, North Korea's nuclear program was also highlighted in the Japan-US statement, with calls for Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. Additionally, the joint objectives mentioned several other areas, including the war on terror, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Japan's aspiration to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as well as a hoped-for resolution to the decades-long territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over a group of islands off Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan.

Mixed reactions to agreement
The policy shift was enthusiastically greeted by hardline hawks, including Koizumi's potential successor Shinzo Abe, the deputy secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). On the other hand, Japanese business leaders expressed deep concern that the new declaration would further antagonize China, risking damage to booming bilateral trade, which is currently at record highs.

In stark contrast to Beijing's reaction, Taipei warmly greeted the announcement. The Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quoted as saying, "We welcome this declaration." However, some Taiwanese opposition leaders were more cautious and several expressed concerns about provoking China.

Japanese Foreign Ministry officials attempted to play down concerns that the agreement would further inflame bilateral tensions with Beijing. A senior diplomat explained, "It is essential to understand that this new agreement stresses the importance of continuing to work closely with China and does not in any way change our view on the status of Taiwan. Overall, this agreement does not really alter the current status quo."

A crucial year for Sino-Japanese ties
Despite the best attempts of Japanese diplomats to soften the impact of its new joint accord, ties with China are almost certain to deteriorate. This will add yet another nail in what appears to be the already heavily hammered coffin of Sino-Japanese relations.

2005 marks 60 years since the ending of World War II, a significant anniversary that evokes bitter memories of Japan's wartime atrocities in China. This year is widely considered as make or break for Sino-Japanese political links. Both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have told Koizumi that they expect him to respect this sensitive milestone by not making his annual pilgrimage to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including convicted Class-A Japanese war criminals.

However, expectations for a gentler year ahead were shattered by bilateral tensions before the year even began. In November, the brief intrusion of a Chinese submarine into Japanese waters infuriated Tokyo. In December, Beijing was enraged by being classified as a threat in a new Japanese defense review and the granting of a visa to former Taiwanese president Lee Tenghui, whom China views as the architect of Taiwan's push for independence. Not surprisingly, China's popularity slumped to an all-time low in an annual end-of-year Japanese government survey.

While some considered that January got off to a good start because Koizumi did not make a contentious visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on New Year's Day as he did in 2004, Beijing was still angered by the large number of prominent Japanese political figures, such as former LDP Secretary General Makoto Koga, who flocked to the shrine and encouraged Koizumi to do likewise.

Even before the announcement of the new US-Japan military accord, February had already produced new bilateral sparks. Early in the month, Tokyo announced that the Japanese Coast Guard had assumed control of a private lighthouse on one of the remote Senkaku Islands, which lie in the East China Sea and are also claimed by Beijing. The structure was built by a far-right group as a symbol of Japanese sovereignty, and the Tokyo takeover sparked demonstrations in Hong Kong and Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry described the move as a "severe provocation" that was "absolutely unacceptable" because it was "illegal and invalid".

Further adding to the strain is a just-released interim Japanese survey of two gas fields in the East China Sea that China plans to develop. The report states that they may straddle the border between each nation's exclusive economic zones. Shoichi Nakagawa, minister of economy, trade and industry, claimed China's development of the gas fields might steal resources from the Japanese side and demanded Beijing release detailed information on the project. Beijing refused.

It is clear that the nascent year 2005 is already turning into a very poor year for Sino-Japanese ties, which might break down completely if Koizumi makes his annual visit to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine. The newly inked US-Japan accord has further complicated what promises to be perhaps the most crucial year for bilateral Japan-China ties in recent decades.

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 21 February 2005,, and is republished with permission.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications