CAMBRIDGE, England — I was in Beijing last week for a conference and research visits that focused on regional cooperation in Northeast Asia. While I was there, Chinese newspapers reported on Japan’s dispatch of the Aegis missile detection system-equipped warship, Kirishimi, to the Indian Ocean.

Sending a heavily armed warship to a war zone is an aggressive act. The move is an expression of support for the planned U.S.-led war on Iraq and therefore, in many people’s minds, illegal under the Japanese Constitution, whatever the legalistic constitutional hairsplitters say.

The same week saw the Japanese government announcing its support for the development of the United States’ missile defense system and its commitment to helping the U.S. develop the application of that system to the East Asia region as a theater missile defense system. Other countries in the region see this as an aggressive and destabilizing act.

And then, late in November, the Japanese government announced that it was to launch a “military-purpose surveillance satellite” next year. This was still being talked about in Beijing last week, where it is seen as a move to expand Japan’s military capabilities.

The militaristic “national defense faction” of the Liberal Democratic Party clearly has the upper hand in the party’s “defense” debates. This is presumably the group that was behind the establishment of the new museum at Yasukuni Shrine that eulogizes the Japanese military.

What was interesting last week was the low-key reaction of the Chinese government to these militaristic moves by Tokyo. Not long ago they would have produced shrill, screaming denunciations by Chinese government spokesmen calling on the Japanese to look in the mirror and learn the lessons of history. The strongest language in the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, last week said simply, “China is worried about possible negative impact from the strengthening cooperation on missile defense between the United States and Japan.”

Comment in the same paper on the dispatch of the Kirishima to the Indian Ocean was limited to quoting a Foreign Ministry spokesman, who merely urged “Japan to discreetly handle the issue of sending an Aegis-equipped warship into the Indian Ocean.” He added, “For historical reasons, sending troops overseas by Japan has always been a sensitive issue and draws concern from relevant Asian countries.”

On the news about the new military satellite, the People’s Daily published an opinion piece that limited its rhetoric to the mild statement, “Many personages of peace feel worried about Japan’s future military development trend.”

One of the People’s Daily’s commentators even published an essay calling for a reassessment of the China-Japan relationship, criticizing Chinese who attack Japan for their “irrational follies that take advantage of the charade of patriotism.” This may be going too far.

Are these signs of the diplomatic maturity of the new Chinese leadership, following on from the name-calling, slanging-match style of the old leadership? Who knows, but it is a welcome development and likely to be more productive. However, don’t be misled: The Chinese are very upset and very worried by the growth of rightwing nationalism in Japan and its militaristic manifestation.

What people are seeing is a Japan that is frightened by the growing confidence of a stronger China, a China that has already and unequivocally taken over regional leadership. Japan never had it anyway; it did not seem to want it. The Japanese strategy is seen as being one of hiding behind its alliance with the U.S. and assuming that some of the hegemonist’s leadership role will rub off on it.

Having brushed off China’s proposal to negotiate an economic cooperation arrangement with South Korea and the 10 Southeast Asian countries in ASEAN, Japan has failed to interest the countries of East Asia in forming any other of the several groupings that it has suggested. It has been limited to a copycat ASEAN plus-one arrangement and a bilateral free-trade arrangement with Singapore.

Japan is having problems coming to terms with its relative, and possibly absolute, decline. It is making the mistake of assuming that military strength will give it regional status, even if only as an ally of the U.S. It won’t. The more it aligns itself with the U.S., the more it will be seen as a reluctant Asian country and a poor neighbor.

The events and announcements of recent weeks suggest that it may now be too late for Japan to play any role in the leadership of East Asia. It has nailed its colors to the mast of U.S. hegemony as its local agent. What it should have done was to drop the arrogance and sense of superiority that so annoy its neighbors and work with them to develop a strong, self-confident and cooperative East Asia.

China is now singing from the regional hymn sheet and its think tanks and government departments are humming with ideas and plans for regional developments. It is up to Japan whether or not it wants to join in. At the moment it gives the impression that it does not. Saber-rattling has never been a good way to make friends.

In recent weeks I have heard researchers in China and South Korea argue the case for regional economic-cooperation agreements on security grounds. As one Chinese professor put it, “economic cooperation can help develop platforms to solve (historical and political) difficulties, and this will help solve regional security issues.”

Such positive ideas are more difficult to find in Japan, certainly in political and government circles. However, also in Beijing last week, Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of Toyota, expressed similar sentiments. Maybe the politicians will follow the lead of the businessmen. But on present performance this seems unlikely.

From the Chinese perspective the alliance of the U.S., Britain and Japan in the fight against Iraq is a reminder that it was this alliance that set off the events that led to the “100 years of humiliation.” Not a good omen.

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