Thursday, January 13, 2005

Chess Moves Up North

The Straits Times (Editorial) Jan 13, 2005

There are troubling signs relations between China and Japan are not what they should be. When Asia's two main powers could be collaborating to spread prosperity and good will in the continent, they are competing to acquire military sinews for geostrategic advantage. The most notable change is the hostile manner each views the other in their respective defence policy reviews. Last month, Japan broadcast its commitment to missile defence technologies. It also mentioned China in the same breath as North Korea as probable threats to Japan's security. This acknowledges China's modernising military, a backhanded compliment, but Beijing may see the mention as being full of historical resonance. A fortnight ago, China published its defence White Paper which contained a pointed reference to Japan's militarisation and intentions to move away from constitutional pacifism. The preamble to full-scale arms competition is unmistakable. Could it lead to Japan's eventual nuclearisation? The rest of Asia should be concerned, but it is helpless to influence processes. Asean depends on a harmonious relationship between the two giants for its economic stability. But it has little leverage on either, except to stress the commonalities that bind the two nations.

Chief of that is their bilateral economic collaboration which Japanese industrialists desperately want to protect, to the extent of their telling Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to not 'upset' China. Japanese imports to China last year were worth 7.6 trillion yen (S$120 billion). Such market size is critical to sustaining Japan's recovery from a decade of no-growth. Mr Koizumi could well resent the role reversal of Japan playing second fiddle to China economically, but subjectivity has no place in framing national strategies. Another is their joint involvement - together with Russia, South Korea and the United States - in attempts to break the North Korean nuclear stalemate. But China is so far gone in its scenario planning it will be holding war games with Russia this year on Chinese territory, their first. This has huge implications. Guaranteed access to Russian oil and gas is a consideration, in exchange for China being Russia's best arms customer. But if the move is driven by Beijing seeking a counter to US influence in East Asia, which is predicated on Japan being its bulwark, it is hard to see Beijing-Tokyo ties achieving equilibrium.

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