Warning that China's rise in East Asia could lead to "instability and turmoil," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso on Wednesday expressed concern over Beijing's annual double-digit expansion in its defense budget, and called for China to increase the "transparency" of its military spending and aims.
Delivering an address in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Aso spent most of his time talking about the problems posed by China's rise, as well as the potential for improvements in Beijing's role.
Throughout history, he said in a clear reference to China's recent economic and military emergence, "the sudden rise of a new power has created both promises and tensions. China's recent development, because of its unprecedented speed, seems to have also created both," he said.
The bulk of his remarks, in a speech about prospects for a stable and peaceful East Asia, were about the potential problems China could pose to the region.
Aso, a known nationalist, anti-China politician and a probable candidate for prime minister in the fall, dismissed Beijing's criticism of visits by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine, a military shrine that contains the graves of a number of Japanese World War II war criminals.
"The shrine is not important," he said in response to a question. "There are various issues between Japan and China; territorial, oil and a whole range. So the shrine is not that important," he said.
China-Japan relations, he said, should not turn on the shrine issue, since several issues would come between Tokyo and Beijing even if the shrine issue were settled.
Aso drew a distinction between what he termed "healthy" nationalism and "narrow-mindedness," clearly considering his own brand of nationalism as healthy, and the recent rise of nationalism in China that has driven a wedge between Tokyo and Beijing narrow-minded.
"There is a fine line between a healthy love of country, which is called `patriotism,' and narrow-minded `nationalism' that breeds hatred of others," he said.
Aso's remarks were a clear reference to both the Yasukuni issue and the mass anti-Japan rallies in China over the past year in connection with Japanese World War II atrocities against China.
Aso did not mention the Taiwan issue in his speech or in his answers to audience questions. But one important purpose of his trip to Washington was to reaffirm a US-Japan regional security arrangement. One of the aspects of the agreement was to declare security in the Taiwan Strait to be a common objective of both countries, a declaration Japan made last year that was seen as a major shift in its attitude toward its role in helping protect Taiwan against a Chinese military threat.
In his comments on Wednesday, Aso expressed concern over China's rapid arms buildup in recent years, calling for "increased transparency and trust, and thus predictability" in military and other affairs.
"Transparency about intentions and capabilities in the political and military realms should greatly reduce the risks of a regional arms race or potentially catastrophic miscalculation," he said.
In doing so, Aso was echoing a long-standing US criticism of China for a lack of transparency in its break-neck military modernization and expansion.
Aso said Japan is determined to create an East Asia that is "directed to common interests" and founded on "shared values, not on confrontational values."