Monday, June 02, 2008

Japan and China: dangerous cracks appear under the polite surface

On the weekend, the Japanese Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba told a defence conference that the Chinese needed be more transparent about their military capability. Ishiba said Japan did not regard China as a security threat despite China’s increase in military spending but doubted all the money was spent purely on defence. In 2008, China’s military budget is $59 billion up 18 percent from last year. Ishiba said China must be willing to give details of its military arsenal, including ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. “[A] country has to be transparent on what sort of military capabilities it has and for what purpose,” he said. “Japan tries to be transparent in this sense, and I want to see the same transparency in China.”

But China is unlikely to offer an explicit outline of its national security strategy any time soon. According to the US based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), hina prefers to characterise its foreign policy and security goals in a series of principles and slogans. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping said China pursued an “independent foreign policy of peace”. Since then its official goals are “to preserve Chinese independence” and to “create a favourable international environment for China’s reform”. Since the early 1990s China has been busy modernising its military. Beijing has implemented double-digit increases to its defence budget every year since 1991.

CSIC cites what Hu Jintao called China’s “century of humiliation” between the mid 19th century (when European powers first subjugated the country) and 1945 (when the Japanese were finally expelled) as the touchstone for the commitment to preserving the nation’s territorial integrity. And as Communism declined as a credible unifying force in the events that led to Tiananmen Square, party leaders turned to nationalism and the return of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan to the motherland as a means of restoring the regime’s prestige and the country’ stature.

With Hong Kong and Macao back in the fold, China has redoubled its strategy aimed addressing a possible Taiwan scenario. Beijing has consistently warned it would take military action if Taipei took steps to declare outright independence. The situation has become increasingly hostile in the last decade as more Anti-Chinese voices emerge in Taiwan. But tensions have eased slightly with the recent return to power in Taiwan of the KuoMinTang (KMT) who are opposed to the foreclosure of unification. Yesterday KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung used his Pro-China to appeal to Beijing to remove its bulk of missiles targeting Taiwan as a "concrete gesture of good will" in the upcoming cross-strait negotiations. While the Taiwanese opposition have accused Wu of being complacent about China’s threat, his call shows he may be able to astutely manage this precarious relationship. The two parties meet in Beijing on 11 June to discuss tourism and charter flights.

But while matters with Taiwan are on the mend, the relationship with Japan remains fraught with hazard. Last week Japan scrapped a plan for military aircraft to deliver earthquake relief to China over fears that it would revive painful memories of World War II. Japanese troops have not been back in the country since 1945 but sixty years is still considered too soon for most Chinese. Yet Japan sent in a rescue and medical team in the immediate aftermath without controversy. Meanwhile economic and trade relations between the two countries have reached unprecedented levels with bi-lateral trade reaching $190 billion in 2005. Japan is now China’s second largest trade partner behind the US while China is now Japan’s leading trade partner.

Yet relations in the political, military and public arenas have deteriorated in recent years as heightened pride, self-confidence and a sense of historical grievance fuels nationalism in both countries. China points to the Japanese textbooks that whitewash their aggression in the 1930s and 40s while successive Japanese Prime Ministers make an annual pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates the country’s warrior culture (including the 14 “Class A” World War II war criminals). On the other side, the Chinese Communist Party has promoted anti-Japanese sentiment and propaganda in its own education system. Meanwhile both countries are at loggerheads over disputed territory in the East China Sea which contain gas and oil fields.

The East China Sea dispute occurs in an area where their exclusive economic zones overlap. But it is not just a fight about energy needs. The core issue is territory and sovereignty. The situation is a dangerous, increasingly militarised flashpoint which is vulnerable to miscalculation, accident and escalation. CSIC warns gloomily that both China and Japan are engaged in a “potentially destructive action-reaction cycle fuelled by deep populist antipathy and historical resentment towards one another”. While relations with Taiwan have thawed, this ice-cold conflict with Japan remains East Asia’s most potent problem and possibly the 21st century’s biggest political issue.

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