BEIJING It was Japan and not the United States that bore China’s greatest ire after Tokyo and Washington took the unprecedented step over the weekend to declare that Taiwan would be a common security concern.
The inclusion of Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province, in the list of joint security objectives of the U.S. and Japan has strained further already tense political relations between Beijing and Tokyo.
Coming on the heels of a year marred with deep distrust between the Asia-Pacific’s two largest economic powers, the new clash bodes ill for the political climate in the region, according to analysts here.
"Dragging Japan into the U.S.-China disagreement over Taiwan is not a smart move on the U.S. side," said commentator Xie Yong in the official Beijing News. "For the U.S., to close ranks with Japan on such a sensitive territorial issue for China like Taiwan, means to become associated in the Chinese peoples’ minds with Japan’s history of invasion."
Despite sporadic flare-ups between Beijing and Washington, U.S.-China political relations are free of the historical load of hatred and mistrust that plagues bilateral ties between China and Japan. Japan and modern China have fought two wars and there is a strong anti-Japanese sentiment here.
Redrafting the 1996 joint declaration on bilateral security, Tokyo for the first time dispensed with its usual political ambiguities regarding Taiwan and stated firmly that it would work together with Washington for "the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait." It also joined the U.S. in pledging to "encourage China to improve transparency of its military affairs."
Beijing’s official reaction was stern and directed toward both the United States and Japan. The state-run Xinhua News Agency condemned both countries for "meddling in China’s internal affairs over Taiwan" and called the new security declaration "an irresponsible and reckless move that will have grave consequences."
The Foreign Ministry also voiced objection, saying that the Taiwan issue is "a subject about China’s national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security" that did not concern foreign countries.
In the past, Washington’s promise to defend Taiwan should mainland China attack the island had been assailed by Beijing as one of the main reasons for Taipei’s bold manifestations for independence.
Taiwan broke away from China after the communist victory in 1949 and is now ruled by a democratically elected government. Recent years have seen a rise in public support for a separate Taiwanese identity among the ethnic Chinese population of the island. Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian has spoken of redrafting the constitution to reflect the emerging new realities.
Japan’s unexpectedly bold move to back what Beijing calls Taiwan’s "separatist movement" drew sharp criticism in the official media. An editorial in the Beijing News warned of "dire consequences" for the whole Asia-Pacific should Japan’s right-wing forces "continue to use the alliance with Taiwan as a means to contain China."
"Japan’s official shift in its stance on the Taiwan question, although only a minor one, is expected to put one more icy coating on the still chilly Sino-Japanese relations at a time when both countries are expecting to see improvements," the Xinhua News Agency said.
Unlike booming bilateral economic ties between China and Japan (last year China surpassed the U.S. to become Japan’s largest trading partner), political cooperation between the two neighbors has always been hesitant.
Beijing says Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to the controversial Yasukini shrine, where World War II soldiers are honored (including convicted war criminals) have only served to rekindle China’s painful memories of Japan’s occupation.
Last year both China and Japan released official reports on perceived military risks that clearly singled out each other.
Japan’s new defense policy, announced on Dec. 10, identified China and North Korea as "grave factors of insecurity." The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has put forward plans to amend the 58-year-old pacifist constitution and raise the country’s military profile in the region.
Japanese politicians have cited worries over China’s rapid development and the modernization of its military, together with North Korea’s nuclear capability as among the main reasons for developing an Asia-Pacific military role.
While realizing the inevitability of constitutional changes under way in Japan, Beijing is worried about the implications they would have on its own regional interests particularly with respect to Taiwan.
In a recently publicized overview of the country’s military strength and defense issues in 2004, China cited "separatist activities" in Taiwan as the greatest threat to the Asia-Pacific region.
"Japan’s new move on Taiwan is the thing to watch," said Sun Shengliang, who researches Taiwanese affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Without any doubt, this is a clear-cut move forward in Tokyo’s pursuit of its political and military goals in the region."
As an important U.S. ally and close friend to Taiwan, Japan has always been present in the cross-strait relations. While it doesn’t maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, Japan has preserved a somewhat unique leverage with the island, which it occupied between 1895 and 1945.
Tokyo recently angered Beijing by granting a tourist visa to Lee Teng-hui, former president of Taiwan, over Chinese protests. Lee, who was educated in Japan, is vilified by Beijing as the founder of Taiwan’s "separatist movement."
Beijing has recently suggested that there could be economic ramifications of Japan’s increasingly hostile relations with China. Wu Dawei, China’s vice foreign-minister said in December Beijing would find it difficult to include Japan in the construction of a Beijing-Shanghai High Speed Railway, given the poor state of bilateral relations.
Ironically, a month later, Taiwan proudly inaugurated its $3 billion bullet train the first for the island. And it was designed and built by the Japanese.
Perhaps the most publicly fought battle between Tokyo and Beijing has been over a tiny archipelago in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku to the Japanese and Diaoyu to the Chinese.
China, Japan, and Taiwan all lay territorial claims to the islands that geologists say may be rich in natural oil and gas. But in a sign of deepening political animosity between China and Japan in recent months, both Tokyo and Beijing have raised the stakes by boosting their claims.
On Feb. 9, Tokyo took formal possession of the islands by accepting the ownership of a lighthouse built on the island chain by Japanese nationalist activists in 1978. The move set off a string of anti-Japan rallies cross China. Beijing criticized the move as a "provocation" and a "violation of Chinese territorial integrity."
This week, state media reported that a Chinese nongovernment organization the China Federation for Defending Diaoyu Islands submitted an application to central authorities in Beijing to lease the islands for tourism and exploration activities.