Japan’s “counter-China” strategy and raised profile in Asia?

Updated On: May 05, 2006

Japan and Australia moving behind the scenes to go into the US flock in encircling Chinese power is no secret ever since the thinly-veiled trilateral hosted and held by Australia.

China is well aware of this development. China is also well aware of Japan’s military might. Japan already has the region’s strongest navy (within the top five in the world) and one of the world’s most advanced military system and weapons. It is no pushover. But what China is perhaps anxious about is the fact that Japan is going to get stronger militarily.

Under the new pact with the USJapan will get a new missile defence centre that will coordinate US and Japanese defences against missile attacks and batteries of American anti-missile Patriot PAC-3 missiles designed to knock out incoming missiles from China or North Korea. On top of that, the Shariki Air Base at Tsugaru in northern Japan will get America's state-of-the-art X-band radar to coordinate the missile defence system so that it can detect incoming missiles early. All these new hardware potentially neutralizes China’s ballistic missiles through a nuclear shield. And China’s ballistic missiles are the very trump card in any potential conflict withTaiwan.

Well aware of the strength of Japanese military might, China is keen to avoid conflict with Japan which is more than a match for Chinese military power. That is whyChina has avoided sending warships to the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyutai or Diaoyu islands in Chinese) which are effectively controlled by Japan. It has also apologized when its submarine wandered into Japanese territorial waters in 2004 and when it cited a “technical mistake” in closing waters around the Chunxiao oilfields to foreign ships.

China fears a Japan that will actively support Taiwanese defence. Already, the new command structure at Japan’s Camp Zama will serve as the nerve center to respond to military emergencies near Japan, such as on the Korean Peninsula or around the Taiwan StraitTokyo also earlier pledged to give logistic support to theU.S. military, including allowing use of the nation's airports, should a crisis erupt that threatens Japan's peace and stability.

Japan on its part has been cautious in not ruffling the feathers of its largest trading partner. Thus, the new defence pact with the US uses coded language. It uses veiled references to the rapid rate at which China’s defense spending is increasing. The joint statement said the two sides "called for greater transparency on the modernization of military capabilities in the (Asia-Pacific) region." Domestically, Japan is also sensitive to its local opposition to US bases. Okinawans remain hostile towards the heavy American military presence on their island, where 75 per cent of more than 40,000 US forces in Japan are based.

Japan prefers to quietly monitor Chinese military buildup and plans to launch two information- gathering satellites with H-2A rocket in July 2006 and early 2007 respectively to form an always-on space-based surveillance system, joining two others already in orbit. The network of four will be able to photograph any location in the world at least once every 24 hours.  It may adopt a tit-for-tat approach, moving closer to the US militarily in response to China’s own strengthening buildup.

On the diplomatic front, Japan is also cozying up to India.  In 2005, 20 Japanese leaders of Cabinet rank, including Prime Minister Koizumi, visited India. In the January’s visit,  Taro Aso dispensed aid to India, a traditional form of yen diplomacy and economic soft power which has for years been practiced on and highly welcomed by the Southeast Asian region. India has replaced China as the largest recipient of Japanese governmental aid. A human exchange program dubbed the "Aso Program" was also announced, which will provide funding to 4,000 Indians over the next three years to visit Japan.

India’s rising international status can be detected at the Golan Heights as Canadian troops ended a peacekeeping mission to be replaced by soldiers from India's Poona Horse that has moved in to take over the responsibilities of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. Coincidentally, Japan herself has been providing logistics support for the Canadian UN force and now, with the Indian replacement, it is the first time their militaries have had to work closely. Tokyo is planning to send military personnel to train in India for 'peacekeeping' operations. This is a perfect chance for both militaries to work together.

While Japan cozies up to India, it has to realize that India is a fiercely-independent power. It does not want to be led into the same closeness that Japan enjoys with the US. In fact, not all of its aims are complementary with the US, at least not to the extent of Japan in Northeast AsiaAustralia in Southeast Asia or the UK inEurope. Unlike these three countries which are satellites that react very quickly to US impulses, India has an autonomous view on major world events.

India sees China in the same ambivalent light as the USChina is fast rising to be its top trading partner. Their ties reached a high point in 2005 as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited New Delhi in April 2005. During Wen's visit, India’s foreign minister stressed on many occasions that India and China "are partners, not rivals". He emphasised on many occasions during his visit that a "strong and prosperous India serves China's interests". The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh told the media after the signing of the agreement for "strategic peace and prosperity" that India and China can together "reshape the world order".

While both the Japan-India and China-India axis are shaping up, the real power holder and balancer in the region may ultimately end up to be the US. Immediately after the Chinese Premier's visit in 2005, the Indian External Affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh went to Washington, where he had high-level discussions with the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and a meeting with President George W. Bush. This was a signal that China-India warmth and rapprochement is not at the expense of the US. As for the Japan-India axis, Japan requires Washington’s backing for Tokyo in its ongoing efforts to thwart what many see as the inevitable emergence of China as a superpower.

New US-Japan pact unnerving for China (The Straits Times, 4 May 2006)
New stage for Japan-U.S. military alliance (Asahi, 3 May 2006)
Troop pact takes alliance with U.S.into new era (Japan Times, 3 May 2006)
Japan to launch two spy satellites (People’s Daily, 1 May 2006)
Closer India-Japan ties reshaping Asia (Straits Times, 4 May 2006)
Roundup: Japan seeks closer ties with India (People’s Daily, 7 Jan 2006)
Moving Closer (The Hindu, 6 May 2006)