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China's Fears of Containment
[Commentary] Beijing likely to see Japan-Australia pact as U.S.-led attempt to keep it in check
Hisane Masaki (hmasaki)     Print Article 
Published 2007-03-16 02:43 (KST)   
Japan has signed with Australia only its second bilateral security agreement since the end of World War II, after the one with the United States dating back about half a century. Although the agreement does not commit either party to defend the other, China, a rapidly ascending military as well as economic power in the Asia-Pacific region, seems very likely to view it as another attempt by Western-oriented nations to contain its rise.

At their meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart, John Howard, signed the historic joint security declaration calling for closer cooperation on terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disaster relief, and peacekeeping. The document specifically calls for close intelligence sharing and joint military exercises for disaster relief and United Nations peacekeeping operations. The document also stipulates the establishment of so-called "two plus two" ministerial security talks comprising foreign and defense ministers from the two countries, similar to those each already has with the U.S.

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The two leaders also pledged in the joint declaration that they will coordinate policies over North Korea and cooperate in dealing with the threat of the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Japan and Australia are active participants in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at preventing the smuggling of such weapons, missiles and parts.

To be sure, both Tokyo and Canberra have taken pains to dismiss suggestions that strengthened security ties could strain their ties with China, saying that the just-signed security pact is not directed at that country. And the security pact is quite different in nature from the Japan-U.S. and Australia-U.S. alliances, which emphasize defense obligations. But Beijing will probably not take the Japanese and Australian assurances at face value.

"This declaration lifts the security aspects of our relationship more closely to the level of our economic and commercial ties," Howard said at a joint press conference with Abe after signing the document. "Neither China nor any other country in the region should see this declaration as being antagonistic toward them."

Tokyo and Washington, increasingly concerned about China's rapid military buildup and modernization, have called for Beijing to make more transparent its military policy, including military spending, which has kept swelling at a double-digit pace in percentage terms for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, Beijing has been alarmed by strengthened security cooperation between Tokyo and Washington in recent years.

Japan and the United States signed a final pact on the realignment of U.S. bases and forces on Japanese soil last May. Aimed at reducing strains on Japanese communities that host bases while maintaining the U.S. presence in Japan, the pact will also further cement the bonds between the close allies through increased integration of their military operations and pave the way for Tokyo's greater involvement in U.S.-led operations, not only in Asia but globally.

The move toward stronger security alliance between Japan and the U.S. has highly alarmed China, especially since a peaceful settlement to tensions in the Taiwan Strait was included in a list of common strategic goals to be pursued by Tokyo and Washington under the new security arrangements. Beijing still regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, even by force if necessary.

There are also suspicions in China that the real U.S. motive for the sweeping overhaul of its military's global posture might be what some call the "soft containment" of the rapidly ascending military and economic power. The Bush administration publicly denies any intention to pursue a containment policy toward China and claims its policy is to encourage China to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system.

Since taking office last September, Abe has advocated a more assertive foreign policy and a stronger security alliance with the United States. He has also vowed to seek revisions of the post-World War II pacifist constitution to allow the nation to play a greater role in the international security arena. The Japan-Australia security pact also apparently reflects Canberra's desire to exert more influence with the security the region as well as its economy.

The Japan-Australia declaration is also widely seen as part of efforts to implement a four-way "strategic dialogue" among Japan, the U.S. and Australia plus India that Abe has proposed since taking the helm of the Japanese government, although this idea seems unlikely to come into fruition any time soon. Japan invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan last December, his first Tokyo trip since taking office, apparently in hopes of strengthening ties with the South Asian country as a counterbalance to the growing influence of China in Asia.

Meanwhile, in a development that raised eyebrows in the U.S., Japan's most important ally, China, Russia and four Central Asian countries issued a joint statement at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July 2005 calling for an early withdrawal of US forces from Central Asia. The four Central Asian nations are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There is now only one US base in Central Asia - in Kyrgyzstan.

The SCO, established in 2001, has received wide attention as an emergent "anti-U.S. league" or as a counter to the U.S.-led NATO. In August 2005, China and Russia launched their first-ever joint military exercise, codenamed "Peace Mission 2005," in Vladivostok, Russia.

During his New Year's journey to Europe, Prime Minister Abe visited the headquarters of the 26-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels to pitch a greater international security role for Japan, despite the constraints of the nation's 60-year-old postwar pacifist constitution, a document he has vowed to revise. Abe became the first Japanese premier to visit the headquarters of what was originally established in 1949 as an anti-Soviet alliance but now includes some Cold War-era Soviet allies as members.

Abe's visit came in the wake of NATO's decision last November to beef up cooperation with Japan, Australia and other democratic non-member countries to ensure global peace and stability, especially in dealing with the threats of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. "It is extremely meaningful for Japan to strengthen cooperation with countries such as those in Europe which share common values with Japan," Abe has said.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Taro Aso made an European tour at the same time, which took him to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia. The trip marked the first step in implementing his "arc of freedom and prosperity" initiative, unveiled last November, to enhance Japan's relations with emerging democracies in Asia and Europe and actively support their democratic and economic development. The four former communist nations in Eastern Europe joined NATO in recent years.

During their trips, both Abe and Aso emphasized Japan's solidarity with countries that share common values such as freedom, democracy, market economy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. This was seen by many observers as a thinly veiled snub to not only Beijing but also Moscow, which has also come under strong international criticism over those issues recently.

Aside from threats of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Japan sees a need for increased dialogue with Europe over security situation in Asia. The underlying security structure in Asia -- where Cold War-era legacies remain, especially the tension on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait -- is still sharply different from that of Europe.

In 2005, the E.U. nations, led by Germany and France, began to move toward lifting a ban on weapons exports to China, imposed after the 1989 military suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. But Japan and the U.S. vehemently objected to the European move on the grounds that it would tilt a power balance in the Taiwan Strait in favor of Beijing. Despite repeated proddings by Beijing, the E.U. still keeps the arms embargo in place. Abe reminded European leaders in January of Japan's strong objection to a possible lifting of the E.U. arms embargo against China.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. This is a significantly expanded and rewritten part of an article that originally appeared on Asia Times.

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Hisane Masaki

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