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Saturday, April 2, 2005

Tokyo talks of a challenge, not a threat


Tension between China and Taiwan are heating up again, but Japanese government officials seem not as hot and bothered about it as one might expect. Perhaps they have taken a measure of China and decided that Japan will do just fine and is very capable of holding up its own end of Asia.

The impression that emerges from recent interviews in Tokyo, in particular with former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, who is currently special assistant in charge of foreign affairs to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is that Japan views the rise of China with more of an overarching sense of patience and of near-inevitability than with trepidation.

These days are not the quietest of times in Asia, however. The Japanese, for starters, are knee-deep in bitter disputes over island territories in the Pacific with China (as well as with Russia and South Korea) and are very wary of China's ally North Korea, which has so far refused to return to the six-party talks organized and hosted by China.

Many cynical U.S. observers believe China is putting on an insincere show of diplomacy for world public consumption, but privately taking pleasure in the way that Pyongyang has been thumbing its nose at the United States and its allies.

Kawaguchi shook her head mildly in objection: "No, I think the Chinese are making their best efforts."

The Japanese believe China understands that it cannot afford war of any sort in the region right now. "North Korea is a very difficult country to decipher," she added. "But China needs a peaceful environment in which to concentrate on solving its own internal problems.

But wasn't this veteran diplomat somewhat surprised by the immense anger with which Beijing greeted the recent U.S.-Japan diplomatic communique that pointedly mentioned a joint interest in the future of the Taiwan Strait?

Kawaguchi says, "China is aware of its growing power, so it is different from 10 years ago."

So does China's economic rise portend Japan's eventual doom? No -- Kawaguchi shares the consensus view of the Japanese business community that China's economic growth works out to be more plus than minus as far as Japan is concerned: "In the economic sense, China and Japan are inseparable: Unless China goes, we don't go."

But geopolitically Japan is hedging its bets, in part by cuddling ever closer to the U.S., in part by devising new passages to India, presumably Asia's next-rising superpower after China.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is planning a trip to New Delhi in late April -- his first to India. "Asia is lucky that we have India in Asia, in many ways," Kawaguchi argues; for India, a nuclear power like China, is a potential counterweight to Beijing.

So, of course, is Japan, but Japan is not a nuclear power. Might this pacifist status some day end -- perhaps with the rise of North Korea and its nasty nukes?

"Some people think that if some other country in Asia were to go nuclear, we would go nuclear," responds Kawaguchi. "But public sentiment against that is strong; and we believe in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We won't go nuclear, and we will never be an aggressive military power. Our Constitution denounces the use of force as a means of settling differences, and we believe in that."

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a UCLA professor. Copyright 2005 Tom Plate


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