As Japan and the US start talks on how to respond to armed incidents that fall short of a full-scale attack on Japan, officials in Tokyo worry that their ally is reluctant to send China a strong message of deterrence.
Military officials meet this week in Hawaii to review bilateral defense guidelines for the first time in 17 years. Tokyo hopes to zero in on specific perceived threats, notably China’s claims to the Japanese-held Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Taiwan, while Washington is emphasizing broader discussions, officials on both sides say.
Washington takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) by China, but recognizes that Japan administers them and says they fall under the US-Japan Security Treaty, which obligates the US to come to Japan’s defense.
However, even as Asia-Pacific security tensions mount, US officials have made clear they do not want to get pulled into a conflict between the world’s second and third-biggest economies.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is alarmed at China’s rapid military buildup. Beijing in turn accuses Tokyo of being a regional threat, citing Abe’s more nationalist stance, his reversal of years of falling military spending and his visit to a shrine that Asian countries see as glorifying Japan’s wartime past.
“Japan wants to prioritize discussions on China, and clarify the respective US and Japanese roles in the event of a ‘gray zone’ incident,” a Japanese government official said, referring to less than full-scale, systematic military attacks backed by a state, but still representing a threat to Japan’s security.
Tokyo wants Washington to join in drafting scenarios for how the two allies would respond in specific cases, he said.
However, Washington is worried about provoking China by being too specific, Japanese officials and experts say.