Lost in the debates about whether the European Union should lift its arms export embargo on China is a much broader and more pressing question: does the Bush administration once again see China as a strategic competitor, as it did in the early days of the Bush presidency, before the war on terror forced Bush to seek cooperation with China’s rulers? That Japan has joined the United States in standing alongside Taiwan in opposing an end to the EU’s arms embargo on China suggests that this is so.
Never before has Japan’s government joined a US administration so closely on the Taiwan issue. When the two countries upgraded their alliance relationship in 1996, Japan’s military operational sphere was expanded far from the Japanese main island. But the government remained deliberately vague about its responsibilities, and refused to clarify the geographic boundaries of Japan Defense Force activities.
Nearly ten years later, Japan is ready for strategic clarity. Shinzo Abe, the acting secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a leading candidate to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as Japanese prime minister next year, put it bluntly: it would be wrong for Japan to send a signal to China that the US and Japan will watch and tolerate a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan.
Monitoring this development and tracking its context, China’s government appears deeply disturbed. China’s foreign ministry condemned the US-Japanese move as interference in Chinese internal affairs and expressed resolute opposition to Abe’s statement.
The Chinese regard Japan’s seizure of Taiwan in 1895 and the ensuing 50-year occupation as one of the most humiliating events in the country’s modern history. In particular, China’s government has resented any Japanese involvement in Taiwan since 1972, when Japan severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan’s government and recognized the communist regime.
But in recent years, pro-Taiwan groups and politicians in Japan have been gaining momentum. For example, despite Chinese protests, Japan hosted a birthday reception for the Emperor in Taipei in 2003. Last year, Japan issued a visa to Taiwan’s former president, Lee Teng-hui, a man who explicitly advocates a US-Japan-Taiwan alliance against China.
Japan’s growing coziness with Taiwan has been accompanied by worsening political relations with China. Despite the fact that China surpassed the US to become Japan’s largest trading partner last year, the top leaders of the two countries have not visited each other’s capitals since 2001. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has insisted on paying an annual visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where Japan’s past aggressive wars are glorified, and where war criminals are among the buried, behavior that China’s government considers unacceptable.
Tensions are also running high in the East China Sea, where the two countries dispute sovereignty over a number of islands. China is exploring gas fields close to the border as defined by Japan. A brief incursion by a Chinese submarine into Japanese territorial waters a few months ago caused further alarm in Tokyo.
In response, a new Japanese defense review identified China as a threat. Japan’s Self Defense Forces outlined three scenarios of a potential Chinese invasion and are making preparations accordingly, while the Japanese government announced last month that it had formally taken control of an island chain over which China, Taiwan, and Japan all claim sovereignty. Moreover, America’s military is closely coordinating with Japan, redeploying its troops and strengthening its command and combat capabilities near Taiwan.
So, barely two months into the second Bush administration, alarm bells about the China threat seem to be ringing again. Key US foreign policymakers now openly contradict conclusions reached last year by the Independent Task Force on Chinese Military Power headed by former defense secretary Harold Brown and retired admiral Joseph Prueher.
That panel found that the balance of power between the US and China, both globally and in Asia, is likely to remain decisively in America’s favor beyond the next 20 years. More significantly, with the latest statement over Taiwan, the US and Japan are poised to use their joint military forces to deter, deny, and ultimately defeat potential Chinese military actions across the Taiwan Strait.
What counter-measures China will deploy are yet to be discerned. Europe, however, needs to decide if it is ready to sign on with the US, as Japan has now clearly done, to contain China’s strategic and military ambitions.