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Is Japan tilting toward China?

by Ted Galen Carpenter

WASHINGTON — Key officials in the Bush administration, especially Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, have long been on record as urging Japan to play a more substantial role in East Asia’s security affairs. Some of them even want Japanese leaders to repeal, or at least modify, Article 9 of the country’s Constitution, which renounces war and prevents Japan from taking military action except to repel a direct attack on its own territory. The underlying assumption of those American policymakers is that a Japan free of Article 9′s restrictions would be a much more useful and reliable U.S. military ally.

With the rise of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, part of Washington’s wish may come true. In his first public statement, Koizumi emphasized the need to change Article 9 and to admit that Japan had a fully functioning military dedicated to the defense of its security. Since then, the prime minister has given other indications that Japan intends to be much more assertive in defending its interests in East Asia and beyond.

But Armitage and other officials who assume that a more active Japan will be an obedient junior partner of the United States are in for an unpleasant surprise. Tokyo shows signs of not only being more active on the security front, but also of being more independent of the U.S. Nowhere is that trend more evident than with respect to policy toward China.

Japanese leaders have long been uneasy about the consequences for their country if a confrontation were to erupt between the U.S. and China. The recent incident involving the U.S. spy plane brought those concerns to the forefront. The plane operated from a U.S. base in Okinawa, and more than a few Japanese leaders fretted that, if a U.S.-Chinese conflict ever broke out, those bases would be targets for Chinese attacks.

There is also smoldering resentment in Japan over Washington’s habit of ignoring or marginalizing Tokyo in dealings with China. The latest episode was President Bill Clinton’s conduct during his 1998 summit meeting in China. Not only did the president fail to stop in Japan, but U.S. and Chinese officials issued a series of joint statements that callously impinged on Japanese interests.

Koizumi’s government has signaled a clear desire to distance itself from Washington’s policies and to improve Tokyo’s own relations with Beijing. Koizumi himself stressed the need for such improvement in a key speech to the Diet in early May.

The appointment of Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka also sent such a signal. She is the daughter of Kakuei Tanaka, the prime minister who normalized relations with China in the 1970s. In the Japanese culture, children are normally expected to carry on the views and policies of their parents. In the course of her political career, she has also acquired her own reputation of being somewhat pro-Chinese.

The foreign minister’s initial actions tend to confirm that impression. After unceremoniously canceling appointments with several visiting foreign dignitaries, including Armitage, she found time to meet with China’s foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan. Earlier, she stated to the press that she had no intention of giving visas in the future to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Tanaka and other officials also stopped short of endorsing Washington’s position on ballistic-missile defense, much to the disappointment of the Bush administration.

Tang responded with a surprisingly conciliatory statement, playing down the previous controversy over a new Japanese textbook that critics contend whitewashes Imperial Japan’s atrocities during the 1930s and 1940s. Instead, he emphasized that China would not make “unreasonable demands” on Japan.

The conditions are in place for a rapprochement between Japan and China. Tokyo probably will not adopt a position of complete neutrality between the U.S. and China. Japanese leaders regard the alliance with the U.S. as too important an insurance policy for Japan if China should turn aggressive to ever do that. But the Koizumi government is showing every sign of pursuing an independent policy toward China — one that is designed to advance Japanese, not American, interests.

Those in the Bush administration who wanted a more assertive Japan are about to discover the price of that change. It means a Japan less subject to U.S. influence on China and an assortment of other issues. It is a price worth paying to alleviate America’s disproportionate security burdens in East Asia, but it must be acknowledged.