HONG KONG — China’s relations with Japan, already strained because of territorial disputes and differing perceptions of history — in particular, because of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s memorial to its war dead, including Class A war criminals — were aggravated last month when Tokyo joined Washington for the first time in voicing concern over Taiwan.

In a joint statement issued in Washington on Feb. 19 after a meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, the two countries said Taiwan was one of their mutual security concerns.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately responded: “The Chinese government is firmly against the United States and Japan issuing any joint statement about Taiwan, which interferes with China’s internal affairs and hurts China’s sovereignty.”

Beijing also warned the U.S. and Japan that they were sending the wrong signals to Taiwan and encouraging pro-independence forces there to push even more vigorously for formal independence. Not surprisingly, the Taiwan Foreign Ministry welcomed the joint statement.

The statement referred to other common security objectives, such as ensuring the security of Japan, supporting peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula and encouraging Russia’s constructive engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.

On China, the statement set out three security objectives. First, it called for the development of a cooperative relationship with China as that country plays a responsible and constructive role regionally as well as globally. Second, it encouraged the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue. And third, it encouraged China to improve transparency of its military affairs.

Beijing focused on the reference to Taiwan while objecting to the call for greater military transparency. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “any irresponsible remarks on China’s national defense buildup to maintain state security and territorial integrity” were untenable.

While calling on China to peacefully resolve the Taiwan issue may not be provocative in itself, the fact that the call was made in a bilateral document made a difference. Beijing is apprehensive of foreign countries joining together to confront it on any issue, and the Taiwan issue is among the most sensitive.

Besides, there is a history to this U.S.-Japan statement. In September 1997, the two countries issued the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines. In that document, the two allies said they would respond to “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” raising speculation that Taiwan was being included in the area covered by the security treaty. However, Tokyo responded that the term “areas surrounding Japan” should not be understood geographically but situationally.

Now that the two countries have identified Taiwan as a common security concern, the question is whether they would go to the island’s assistance if it were attacked by China. Of course, China has said repeatedly that its policy is to use peaceful means to achieve unification but that, as a matter of sovereignty, it cannot renounce the use of force.

The problem is that China regards Taiwan as its domestic affair in which other countries should not interfere. However, the United States and Japan regard the maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as a regional issue in which they have a legitimate interest.

The joint statement came at a time when Washington has been issuing warnings about the gravity of the cross-strait situation. The head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Porter Goss, testified recently that “Beijing’s military modernization and military buildup is tilting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also voiced concern over the expansion of the Chinese navy.

The statement is likely to increase Beijing’s unhappiness with the U.S.-Japan security treaty. In the 1970s, Washington had told the Chinese that the treaty served to prevent any revival of militarism in Japan. In recent years, however, the U.S. has been encouraging Japan to maintain a military force that can be deployed for combat in the region.

In Chinese eyes, there is a distinct danger that Japan will be America’s military ally in Asia, just as Britain is its ally in Europe. In addition, Beijing fears that the U.S. will use a militarized Japan to help it contain a rising China. Political analysts in Beijing have pointed out that the focus of the mutual security treaty has shifted from defending Japan to safeguarding peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is unclear what effect, if any, the latest development will have on the North Korean nuclear crisis. Certainly, it is not likely to increase Chinese enthusiasm for helping the U.S. and Japan resolve a problem in which they may have more at stake than Beijing.

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