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NEW YORK — On Feb. 19, Japan and the United States issued a joint statement that maintaining peace and security in the Taiwan Strait is a common strategic objective. This was nothing extraordinary except for the fact that Japan, for the first time, joined the U.S. in voicing public concern about China’s military buildup in the area and about growing tension between China and Taiwan.

After establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1972, Japan began pursuing a policy of good will, emphasizing long historic and cultural ties. It has provided tens of billions of dollars in government economic development aid since 1979, contributing greatly to China’s rapid economic growth. In doing so, it has patiently endured ungrateful China’s repeated calls on Japan to apologize for past invasions, and to remember history, revise history textbooks, deny tourist visas to former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui and demand that Japanese prime ministers stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

Tokyo woke up to China’s military threat in 1995 and 1996 when China test-fired ballistic missiles over the Taiwan Strait. It has continued what some critics have charged is “a spineless policy toward Beijing,” expressing its concern only in vague declarations and laws.

The 1996 joint Japan/U.S. security declaration listed North Korea, but not China, as contributing to uncertainty in East Asia. The 1999 law for protecting areas surrounding Japan (read: Taiwan) was situational in nature, avoiding a geographic description of the law’s coverage so as not to offend China.

China’s challenges to Japan in 2004 included repeated intrusions of Chinese ships into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, natural gas drilling in waters claimed by Japan, a nuclear submarine intrusion into Japanese territorial waters in November, efforts to have a Japanese island south of Tokyo declared a rock to deprive Japan of economic rights to thousands of square kilometers, aggressive diplomatic offensive toward Southeast Asian countries to reduce Japanese influence, and several anti-Japanese demonstrations (and near riots), including that at the Asian cup soccer final in Beijing last summer.

Then there are the larger mid- and long-term strategic concerns that prodded Japan into joining the U.S. in voicing concern about the Chinese threat. Among them are China’s rapid growth as a global economic power, its rise as a regional political/military power able to form strategic partnerships worldwide, the rapid shift in the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait to China, the increase in the number of short- and middle-range ballistic missiles targeting not only Taiwan but also Japan and U.S. forces in Japan, and China’s pursuit of a sea power strategy (in which the Chinese navy is moving further east).

Also worrying Japanese and U.S. officials are China’s ambitious national goals and strategies such as rapid economic growth and military modernization in a stable international and domestic environment under Communist Party dictatorship. These strategies are aimed at (1) lifting China to superpower status so that it can challenge the U.S. as well as perhaps contain Japan by the mid-21st century and (2) establishing a hierarchical world order with China at the top.

Changes inside Japan have contributed to the shift in Japanese policy toward China. The expanded role of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s office in foreign policymaking vs. the declining influence of the Foreign Ministry, reputedly dominated by “China school officials” more interested in serving as China’s sycophants than in working for Japan’s national interests, has been important.

According to a December 2004 survey conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office, the percentage of Japanese polled who felt friendly toward China dropped by 10.3 points to 37.6, the lowest since the survey started in 1975. The percentage of those who said they did not feel friendly toward China increased dramatically to 58.2 from 48 in 2003. The portion who considered “current Japanese-Chinese relations as good” plunged to 28.1 percent (from 46.9 percent in 2003).

Predictably, China denounced the Feb. 19 joint statement as interference in its internal affairs and as the wrong message to Taiwan’s pro-independence advocates. By contrast, Taiwan’s more independence-inclined officials and interest groups reacted with great delight, stepping up their call for a joint Taiwan-Japan-U.S. defense against Chinese threats. In a larger sense, the Feb. 19 statement:

* Bids adieu to Japan’s illusory foreign policies of the past 60 years which, under the postwar Constitution, have defined “trust in peace-loving countries as the basis of Japanese security” and prohibited the maintenance of armed forces and other war potential. It signals a shift to a more realistic foreign policy based on comprehensive national power and on a robust alliance with the U.S.

* Suggests an expansion of the Cold War strategy in the U.S./Japan security alliance to one that assumes that rogue states, terrorists and other nonstate actors are intent on using weapons of mass destruction, and that North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons, and China figure as rising regional threats.

The U.S./Japan alliance is increasingly not just for defending Japan’s homeland and surrounding areas, but for defending international security from Northeast Asia to the Middle East. The new Japan/U.S. resolve of Feb. 19 will:

* Create an Asian international power structure that pits the U.S./Japan alliance against a Chinese-Russian strategic partnership. Still, Russia, despite its excellent ties to China, is also fearful of a strengthening China and will tilt toward the U.S./Japanese camp when its national interests dictate.

* Seek to maintain the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and enhance Taiwan’s security if pro-Chinese forces inside Taiwan do not sell out to China.

* Strengthen the resolve of the Southeast Asian countries to remain independent, discourage them from joining the Chinese bandwagon and becoming China’s dependent states, and delay the emergence of a hierarchical Asian world order headed by “Imperial” China.

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