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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (March 2, 2005)

Japan/U.S. vs China: Two against one

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

China's relations with Japan, already strained because of conflicting territorial claims and differences stemming from history, were aggravated last month when Tokyo joined Washington for the first time in voicing concern on Taiwan.

In a joint statement issued in Washington on February 19 after a meeting of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee, the two countries said that Taiwan was one of their mutual security concerns. Beijing's Foreign Ministry immediately responded: "The Chinese government is firmly against the United States and Japan issuing any joint statement over Taiwan, which interferes with China's internal affairs and hurts China's sovereignty."

Beijing also warned the US and Japan that they were sending the wrong signals to Taiwan and encouraging pro-independence forces there to push even more vigorously for formal independence. Not surprisingly, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry welcomed the joint statement.

The statement set out three security objectives regarding the mainland: the development of a co-operative relationship with China; the use of dialogue to settle issues affecting the Taiwan Strait; and more transparency in China's military affairs.

Beijing focused on the reference to Taiwan, while also objecting to the call for greater military transparency. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing said that "any irresponsible remarks on China's national defence build-up to maintain state security and territorial integrity" were untenable.

While calling on Beijing to peacefully resolve the Taiwan issue may not be provocative in itself, the fact that the call came in a bilateral document made a difference. The mainland is apprehensive about foreign countries joining together to confront it on any issue, and the subject of Taiwan is among the most sensitive.

Besides, there is a history to this US-Japan statement. In September 1997, the two countries issued the US-Japan Defence Co-operation Guidelines. It said that the two allies would respond to "situations in areas surrounding Japan", raising the question of whether Taiwan was being included in the area covered by the security treaty. However, Tokyo said that the term "areas surrounding Japan" should not be understood in terms of geography, but of situations.

Now that the two countries have identified Taiwan as a common security concern, it raises the question whether they would go to the island's assistance if it were attacked by the mainland.

The problem is that Beijing regards Taiwan as its domestic affair, while the US and Japan regard maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as a regional issue, in which they have a legitimate interest.

The statement is likely to increase Beijing's unhappiness over the US-Japan security treaty. In the 1970s, Washington told Beijing that the treaty served to prevent any revival of militarism in Japan. In recent years, however, the US has been encouraging Japan to maintain a military force that can be deployed for combat in the region.

In mainland eyes, there is a distinct danger that Japan will be America's military ally in Asia, just as Britain is its ally in Europe. In addition, Beijing fears that the US will use a militarised Japan to help it contain a rising China.

Political analysts in Beijing have pointed out that the focus of the mutual security treaty has shifted from defending Japan to safeguarding peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is unclear what effect, if any, the latest development will have on the North Korean nuclear crisis. Certainly, it is not likely to increase Chinese enthusiasm for helping the US and Japan resolve a problem where they may have more at stake than Beijing.

(Originally appeared in the March 2, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications