China, which is on the way to superpower status with its economic wealth and military strength, has become increasingly assertive. Moves by this rising nation have the potential to bring structural changes to the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.
While calling on Beijing for self-restraint, Japan must join hands with neighboring countries and show a resolute stance against China if it takes any actions aimed at achieving hegemony.
In early January, the Chinese government announced a policy of quickly enacting maritime laws to strengthen the policing of its waters.
Meanwhile, Beijing last spring expanded its claimed area of “core interests,” which had been limited to Taiwan and Tibet, to the South China Sea.
Concerning this development, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed in front of Chinese President Hu Jintao at a joint press conference, held Wednesday after U.S.-China summit talks, that the United States has a fundamental interest in “maintaining freedom of navigation” in East Asia.
The South China Sea is an important area where the interests of Japan, Southeast Asian countries and the United States coincide. Beijing’s stance of treating the area as if it were China’s own territory cannot be tolerated.
China’s defence spending has seen double-digit increases every year for 21 years through 2009. Its navy and air force now have greatly enhanced hardware at their command.
China is said to be pursuing a long-term maritime strategy. Its initial aim is to gain command of the seas and airspace inside the so-called “first island chain,” a strategic defence line that runs from the Japanese archipelago to the South China Sea via Okinawa Prefecture and Taiwan.
To achieve this goal, Beijing has developed an antiship ballistic missile dubbed an “aircraft carrier killer” and is building a few aircraft carriers of its own. It also has carried out trial flights of a next-generation stealth fighter.
The country also wants to expand its military control to the “second island chain” that runs from the Ogasawara Islands down to Guam, beyond the East China Sea. This is to keep U.S. forces at bay in the western Pacific, with the eventual absorption of Taiwan in mind.
Japan’s Senkaku Islands are located in an area within the “first island chain” where China is developing oil fields beneath the seabed.
Since a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships in waters off the Senkaku Islands in September, China has frequently dispatched fisheries patrol boats to the area, apparently based on its maritime strategy.
It was appropriate that the government decided to enhance the defence of the Nansei Islands and the other islands in the new National Defence Program Outline adopted at the end of last year.
It is also reasonable that the Japan Coast Guard is seeking revisions, including enhancement of maritime police authority, to relevant laws to strengthen its patrol and warning systems in response to the incident off the Senkaku Islands.
Through diplomatic channels, the government must also demand that China honor Article 1 of the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty, which says that each country shall respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the other.
Meanwhile, for the sake of regional security including the safety of sea lanes, Tokyo must further deepen its partnerships with Australia, India, South Korea, the United States and other countries that share its concerns over China’s military buildup.
China recently has started taking a harder stance because it has changed its diplomatic policy.
Beijing has recently emerged from 20 years of following a policy, advocated by late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, of keeping a low profile without showing its true colors.
The policy aimed to avoid friction with other countries and concentrate the nation’s resources on domestic development as socialism ebbed away with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, the Hu administration changed this policy in the summer of 2009 to a diplomatic stance of voicing its national interests more loudly. The biggest reason for this change was China’s accumulation of economic power, with a gross domestic product that was set to overtake that of Japan for the rank of second-largest in the world.
With its wealth of foreign currency reserves, China has become the largest purchaser of U.S. Treasury bonds. Also, the country has recently been purchasing government bonds of some European countries in fiscal crisis.
Members of China’s current leadership under Hu, chief of the Chinese Communist Party as well as president of the country, are likely to retire at the party congress to be held in autumn 2012. Xi Jinping, vice president of the country, is likely to succeed to the post of general secretary.
In China, a small number of businesspeople, along with government and party bureaucrats, monopolize wealth and power, while some of the public continues to suffer from dire poverty.
Frustration within Chinese society over widespread corruption, oppression of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs, and other issues is said to be approaching its limit.
If China neglects political reform, puts priority only on economic development and continues a high-handed approach to its international relationships, it could become a destabilising factor for East Asia.
The international community must patiently keep urging China to respect universal values such as democracy and human rights and to fulfill responsibilities commensurate with its national power.
Japan needs to construct a new strategy against China based on a comprehensive vision including diplomatic, security and economic considerations.
(The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 24)