Pomp and Shifting Circumstances

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NISID HAJARIFor more than a year now, Tokyo must have felt a bit like Timbuktu. Japanese officials, easily slighted, watched nervously as Chinese President Jiang Zemin grinned his way across the United States. They began to lose sleep when American President Bill Clinton marched up the Great Wall. The only visitors the Japanese capital seemed to attract were a gaggle of U.S. Treasury officials, who lectured Tokyo on the need to reinvigorate the limp Japanese economy.Recently, however, the Japanese metropolis has become far more central. Only days after Clinton zipped through town, Jiang lands in Tokyo on Nov. 25--the first formal visit by a communist Chinese head of state. That alone may qualify the six-day trip as a success, since the summit is expected to yield few breakthrough initiatives. Still, says Yukio Okamoto, a Japanese diplomatic consultant and former Foreign Ministry official: This is not going to be an easy visit. Hanging over Jiang's tour are familiar, unresolved tensions regarding Taiwan and Japanese brutality during World War II. Just beneath the surface are even more dangerous questions about how the security map of Asia will be drawn in the 21st century--and how tall Tokyo will again loom.Both Jiang and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi seem eager to deal with the past first. Like most of the rest of Asia, China has seethed for years over Japan's inability to apologize for the savagery of its wartime occupation. Last month, however, Obuchi may have presented an opening when he directly apologized--in writing--in the joint declaration issued during a summit meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Observers expect Jiang to receive no less, even though many Japanese worry that China will continue to wield its complaint as a tool of moral blackmail. For his part Jiang sought to allay those fears in a recent interview with Japan's Asahi Shimbun, when he asserted that the summit was meant not to dwell on the past, but to create a beautiful future jointly.Flowery words, however, will not resolve the far thornier issue of Taiwan. Jiang wants Obuchi, like Clinton during his visit last June, to state the so-called three no's (preferably in writing): no Taiwan independence, no two Chinas and no representation of Taiwan as a sovereign nation in international organizations. Japan's Foreign Ministry has lobbied hard against Obuchi repeating the statements even verbally. Unlike the U.S., which maintains its commitments to defend and to sell arms to the island even after Clinton's remarks, Japan wields little other leverage with Taipei. Considering that Taiwan actually imports more from Japan than does mainland China ($13 billion versus $9.7 billion in this year's first half), the sacrifice seems too great for the unsteady promise of good will from Beijing.Yet the alternative may pose even greater dangers. For Asia to be secure, Japan and China have to be getting along and tackling vestiges of the cold war like Taiwan and North Korea, says Stephen Leong, a Japan scholar at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. Otherwise the security architecture of Asia will fall to pieces.PAGE 1  |  
Events in recent months have brought that possibility unnervingly close. After North Korea launched a rocket over Japan's airspace on Aug. 31--Pyongyang maintains it was merely an attempt to place a satellite in orbit--Tokyo quickly overcame its qualms about helping the U.S. develop an expensive theater missile defense (TMD) system to shoot down ballistic missiles. Within weeks a modest request for $8 million in research funds had been inserted into Japan's 1999 military budget, and only last month Tokyo announced plans to build and launch four of its own spy satellites. (The Japanese had to rely on U.S. satellite data to analyze the North Korean rocket.) China just as swiftly roared its disapproval: Beijing claims the Japanese satellites will spy on the mainland and that TMD technology--in which Taipei has already expressed an interest--will spark a regional arms race.The Japanese counter that China has played the more destabilizing role in the area lately. They insist their more vigorous military plans are aimed solely at Pyongyang, and they accuse Beijing of refusing to rein in its loose-cannon ally. China knows North Korea is useful as an irritant that prompts the U.S. and Japan to moderate their attitudes to China in the vain hope of eventual assistance on North Korea, says Gerald Segal, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. At the same time, evidence has emerged that the Chinese have developed the capacity to churn out medium-range missiles, which would likely be the weapon of choice in any conflict in Northeast Asia. That may help explain Beijing's vehement opposition to last year's updated guidelines on U.S.-Japan defense cooperation, which commit Tokyo to support American troops in conflicts in areas around Japan. Any functioning TMD umbrella installed by the two allies could vastly reduce the possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.In fact, the rise in tensions masks an acknowledgment that the current architecture of power in the region cannot stand forever. Many Japanese analysts fear that China's simultaneous wooing of Washington and rapid modernization of its military signal an attempt to supplant the U.S. as the linchpin of the security triangle that has maintained peace in the region. The Chinese would like to weaken the American-Japanese alliance so that they can deal with the U.S. and Japan separately, says Masashi Nishihara, professor of international relations at Japan's National Defense Academy. That means the triangular relationship will remain unstable. Last week's election of moderate Keiichi Inamine as governor of Okinawa has improved the prospects for maintaining U.S. military forces on that Japanese island. Yet even many Western analysts have begun to wonder whether both Beijing and Tokyo might not be better off if Japan developed a proper, offensive military of its own. The reality, says Segal, is that so long as Japan is an abnormal power without a serious armed forces, it will risk a lurch into irrational actions.Neither side, however, may be ready to assume that superpower role just yet--and not only because the burden of history may be lightened this week. Leading Asia means picking up all its problems, says Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at Hong Kong's City University, and both China and Japan have too many of their own problems to take up more. For Jiang and Obuchi, being merely the center of attention is likely enough for now.Reported by Hannah Beech/Hong Kong, Terry McCarthy/Tokyo and Mia Turner/Beijing  |  2