Rising Tensions in Asia

In an already tense region, Northeast Asia, the announcement of Japan's new defense upgrade brings a new wave of anxiety to its neighbors. As the United States and Japan forge a stronger strategic alliance, and considering the growing US presence in central Asia and the Middle East, Chinese officials have expressed concern. Neighbors are also wary of Japan's heightened regional and global defense ambitions, as the region lacks any institutional defense framework. How can the island nation be trusted to act in the region's best interests? A more formal regional security cooperative may be the answer. – YaleGlobal

Rising Tensions in Asia

Japan's recent changes to its defense policy have put a dent in the region's sense of security
Anthony Rowley
Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Tension among major powers in North-east Asia over security issues continues to ratchet up and it jumped at least several notches last week when Japan announced sweeping changes to its postwar defence policy.

While not overtly aggressive, the decision to upgrade land and sea-borne missile defence systems and to undertake limited arms exports certainly signalled a more robust military attitude in Japan, one that has inevitably provoked concerns among its neighbours.

The fact that this is taking place within the context of US-Japan security cooperation (and is designed in part to facilitate such cooperation) may be of some comfort to a South-east Asia which looks to the US as an essential balancing factor in the regional security equation.

But it is hardly calculated to produce a greater sense of security within a China that feels increasingly threatened by a more assertive US-Japan alliance on the one side and by a growing US presence in central Asia and the Middle East on the other.

Nor was China appreciative of comments in Japan's latest Defence Review - the first in a decade - that China needs to be closely 'watched' in the light of the modernising of its nuclear and missile capabilities as well as of its naval and air forces.

Reaction was rapid and predictable. 'We are deeply concerned with the great changes of Japan's military defence strategy and its possible impact,' China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said, adding that the decision to name China as a potential enemy 'was groundless and extremely irresponsible'.

The Defence Review also identified North Korea as a potential threat, noting that it has been developing, deploying and proliferating weapons of mass destruction and possesses large-scale special units. 'North Korea's military activities are a major destabilising factor in the region,' says the report.

South Korea did not react at an official level but some defence analysts there complained that it was counter-productive to single out North Korea as a threat on the one hand while pursuing negotiations over arms limitation and Japanese kidnap victims on the other.

The one consolation that China, the Koreas and other Asian states concerned about a possible resurgence of Japanese militarism could draw from the Defence Review was that it maintained the ban on Japan acquiring a nuclear capability and at the same time stopped short of recommending any pre-emptive military strike capability for Japan.

A panel of Japanese business leaders and academics had earlier suggested that this might be necessary in order to deal with threats on the Korean peninsula.

As for Japan's plan to resume arms exports on a limited scale, this too could create alarm among some of Japan's neighbours (even if it benefits Japan's economy). Ostensibly aimed at facilitating joint production of missile defence systems between Japan and the US, the easing of restrictions could also be construed to cover export of limited weaponry such as patrol boats and other equipment to help Asian nations counter terrorism or piracy.

Once the principle is established it could be easier for Japanese governments to 'creep' into eligible categories of arms exports and destinations, some analysts say.

What is most worrying about Japan's decision to perform a new and bigger role in regional and global defence cooperation is that it is taking place in the absence of a strong framework for defence cooperation in North-east Asia, as observed recently by Russia's ambassador to Japan, Alexander Losyukov.

Various forums for cooperation do exist (including the Asean Regional Forum) but these need more power to be effective. In the arena of security, a new regional forum embracing Japan, China, Russia and the US is essential, Mr Losyukov suggested.

There are different views as to why such a forum has failed to find favour so far. One is that the US is intent on maintaining military superiority in the Pacific and is not willing to see its power compromised by any regional security alliance that could come to resemble the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).

Another is that Japan wishes to build up its own military capability (under the cover of its alliance with the US) to a point where it can negotiate as an equal or even dominant partner in any regional security forum.

Whatever the reason, the absence of formal and institutionalised cooperation in the area of security invites suspicion and potential hostility, as shown by recent incidents involving incursions of Chinese vessels into Japanese territorial waters.

Diplomatic relations between Japan and China are strained, as they are between Japan and Russia. Only China and Russia are enjoying an 'entente' but that is not sufficient for regional security cooperation.

The presence of Japan plus South (and eventually North) Korea is essential but both have restricted room for manoeuvre, by virtue of alliances with the US. A more rational structure is urgently needed if the dangers of conflict erupting are to be minimised.

Copyright © 2004 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.