'China's a threat' comes out clear as a bell
Hajime Furukawa and Satoshi Ogawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
WASHINGTON--Although it was not mentioned directly as such, the main threat playing on the minds of Japan and the United States in this week's bilateral security talks was crystal-clear: China.
"Although China wasn't specifically named, Japan and the U.S. have all but said, 'China is a threat,'" a Japanese government source said of the "main objective" of a joint statement issued after ministerial-level defense and security talks in Washington.
The preamble of the statement said both countries agreed on the need to "address challenges posed by the increasingly uncertain security environment" in East Asia in "common strategic objectives."
For the first time, the statement also mentioned "nontraditional security concerns," and other evolving threats, such as "to outer space, to the high seas, and to cyberspace."
It is not difficult to figure out what nation this was referring to.
"Everybody knows that the nation causing the most concern to others in these fields is China," the government source said.
With China acting increasingly hegemonistic in its nearby waters, the statement reaffirmed the importance of maintaining the "security of the maritime domain by defending the principle of freedom of navigation." Japan and the United States also agreed to maintain cooperation for the protection of and access to space and cyberspace as new elements in the objectives.
The common strategic objectives were first formulated in the February 2005 "two-plus-two" talks as basic guidelines that the Japan-U.S. alliance and the U.S. forces' realignment aim to achieve. They were revised in 2007.
The statement said both governments will "encourage China's responsible and constructive role in regional stability and prosperity" and "its cooperation on global issues." They also will urge China to "improve openness and transparency with respect to [its] military modernization."
The statement issued after the previous round of the two-plus-two talks, held in 2007, urged China "to conduct itself as a responsible international stakeholder, improve transparency in its military affairs, and maintain consistency between its stated policies and actions."
Tuesday's statement also said Tokyo and Washington will "discourage the pursuit and acquisition of military capabilities that could destabilize the regional security environment." That was a nudge at ballistic missile programs being developed by North Korea and Russia, as well as China's military buildup that is aimed at strengthening its "anti-access strategy."
China's decision to restrict exports to Japan of rare earths--minerals crucial to the manufacture of many high-tech products--as bilateral ties chilled after a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture in September also prompted an entry in the joint text. The statement said Japan and the United States will seek to promote talks "on the diversification of supplies of critical resources...including energy and rare earths."
The expressions of increased concern in the statement seem to be aimed at erasing fears in the region that there could be a shift in the military balance between the United States and China in the western Pacific, according to observers.
Years of sizzling growth have seen China leapfrog Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world. Beijing's defense budget has also risen sharply in recent years, and it has stepped up moves to establish dominance over maritime interests and in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
By contrast, the United States is under the gun to slash its national debt as its economy struggles to get back on track. U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated he wants a significant cut in the defense budget, and some members of Congress have called for a less-costly U.S. military presence overseas--including forces stationed in Okinawa Prefecture and Guam.
In a speech at an Asian regional security conference in Singapore earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates even admitted that "questions are being raised about the sustainability and credibility" of U.S. commitments around the world, and that "these questions are serious and legitimate."
China's hostile reaction to the collisions near the Senkaku Islands last autumn remains fresh in Japan's memory. Earlier this month, 11 Chinese naval vessels passed between Okinawa's main island and Miyakojima island.
"It was a brazen show of force," a Defense Ministry source said.
At a joint press conference after the two-plus-two talks Tuesday, Gates reaffirmed that the United States was, in partnership with Japan, dedicated to preserving peace and stability in East Asia--even as China emerges as a bigger player on the stage.
"As a Pacific power, the United States remains committed to maintaining a robust forward presence in East Asia," Gates said.
While plenty of late nights were spent preparing the statement--which also included dropping a 2014 deadline for the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture and an addition calling for promoting "the highest level of safety" in civil nuclear programs--both sides know the real work lies ahead.
"We wrote a ton of stuff up in the statement, but the important thing will be whether the politicians can actually put it all into practice," a government source said.
Ogawa is a correspondent based in Washington.