There are growing concerns that China might be readying itself for a confrontation with Japan.
A recent Pentagon report on China's growing military power suggests the US is worried that Beijing is gearing up not only to threaten Taiwan but also to confront other US allies in the region, Japan being the most prominent among them. There are also fears in some circles that China would eventually aim to displace the US as the region's dominant power.
China's growing military power is a worry, but it is not the only factor threatening US pre-eminence in the region. Through trade and politics, China has already emerged as a counter-point to the US. Asia-Pacific countries are lining up to ingratiate themselves with Beijing. It will be hard to find a country in the region willing to take a stand against China on any issue sensitive to Beijing.
There has been a tremendous transformation in regional politics and economics in the last decade to accommodate China as the region's rising power. And this has dented the US' image, more so because of the quagmire in Iraq and its preoccupation with the global war on terrorism.
At the same time, the steady growth of China's military power has only reinforced China's credentials as a regional heavyweight. As the Pentagon report says, "the pace and scope of China's military build-up already place regional military balances at risk."
Even though China is still a long way from matching US military power, it is already developing a capacity to make it costly for the US to take it on. Beijing is reportedly deploying a new generation of ballistic missiles in southeast China, opposite Taiwan, with the capacity to strike moving targets at sea.
China is also modernizing and expanding its fleet of submarines. According to Michael Richardson in the Jakarta Post, "China put 11 submarines into service last year and is expected to commission another five or six this year. With over 50 Chinese subs operational, and about half of them modern and highly lethal, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the US and its ally Japan to counter this undersea force."
As for the air force, it is said to be acquiring Tu-22M-3 Backfire bombers from Russia that would make US naval carriers and forward bases more vulnerable to attacks by China.
The US, therefore, has reason to worry, for itself and for its allies. The potential for conflict is already creating alarm among countries in the region. At a recent conference in Tokyo to deliberate on Asian economic integration, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi warned that, "Our economics is pushing us in one direction [of integration] but our politics is pulling us in another."
He said that regional solidarity had been "seriously dented" by Japan and China pulling in different directions. As a result "we will all suffer the consequences."
The Philippines' ambassador to Japan, Domingo Siazon, was even more alarmist, raising the prospect of an atomic arms race between China and Japan.
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Beijing is angry at Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which houses the remains of some Japanese war criminals. There are also issues of revision of history text books, with Tokyo accused of sanitizing, if not obliterating, its war-time record of occupation and brutality. In short, China believes that Japan hasn't shown adequate contrition for its war crimes and is starting to manifest militant nationalism.
Japan is becoming an increasingly active partner in its security alliance with the US. There are moves to revise its pacifist Constitution. It has started to regard China as a major security threat, and does not buy Beijing's claim over Taiwan.
The two countries have sovereignty disputes in the East China Sea and over mineral resources. They have come close to naval skirmishes to uphold their respective claims. In other words, the relationship between China and Japan is disturbing.
Japan certainly has a terrible wartime record. And when it tries to be economical with the truth in this regard, it creates resentment and anger in China and South Korea and, to varying degrees, in other Asian countries subjected to Japanese invasion and occupation.
Compared with Japan, which appears distant and aloof, Beijing has adroitly played its diplomacy and trade to win over or neutralize countries in the region. Since the 1990s, Japan's economic image has been that of a laggard, just managing to float, even though it has continued to be the world's second-largest economy.
China, on the other hand, has been receiving rave reviews for its rapid economic growth and how it is likely to be the new engine of Asian, if not global growth. This perception of China as a rapidly rising star is creating a momentum of its own, making its skeptics an oddity.
At the same time, Japan's security alliance with the US is not a political plus with some Asian countries, because the US is perceived as an outsider. Japan, therefore, appears tainted while China is a home-grown Asian leader.
It is this halo around China which puts Japan at a terrible disadvantage in image-making. Beijing is squeezing every ounce it can from Japan's wartime guilt. Tokyo will always be found wanting in its contrition. Otherwise, China will lose the political and moral high ground which gives it a decisive advantage.
In other words, Beijing will never willingly subscribe to an equal regional power role for Japan. It would have to accept a secondary role in a region where China sees itself as the major power. Beijing might share that role with the US for the time being, but, being an "outsider" -- that is, not Asian -- the latter will increasingly be politically squeezed out.
If Tokyo will not accept the regional role scripted for it in Beijing, its choices are: first, to continue with its US alliance in an increasingly active role; and second, to create an autonomous political and military role, which might include acquiring nuclear weapons at some point. The latter is problematic, not only because it will create a terrible uproar in Asia because of Japan's wartime record, but because it could also jeopardize Japan's US alliance.
Japan is, therefore, unlikely to put itself in that situation. What it can do, though, is to acquire sufficient military power to make the exercise of China's coercive or actual military power costly for Beijing in any bilateral disputes where the US might not like to get involved.
In other words, Japan might prove to be the proverbial thorn in China's ambition to create an East Asian co-prosperity sphere.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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