Chinese Territorial Assertions Complicate Japanese-U.S. Relations

November 11, 2012 in Top News, World News

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy holds a review before the guided missile destroyer Shenzhen

In this photo distributed by China’s official Xinhua news agency, Chinese Navy soldiers attend a ceremony to see off the missile destroyer Shenzhen on a dock of Zhanjiang, southeast China, on Wednesday Nov, 21, 2007. The destroyer left here Wednesday morning for a port call to Japan, the first such visit in the history of the naval forces of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Xinhua said. Source: AP Photo/Xinhua, Zha Chunming.

Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto highlighted concerns about Chinese maritime aggressiveness while speaking on Japan’s desire for talks with the United States in December. According to Japan Times on Saturday, Morimoto placed particular importance on updating mutual defense guidelines with the U.S. and has said that his country is seeking talks with the U.S. to do so. He also expressed concerns about China’s growing naval power, and involvement with terrorism and cybercrimes.

A long-time dispute between Japan and China over the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands is the most apparent difficulty between the two nations in matters of defense and security. Officially, the U.S. is neutral on that dispute. Recently planned military exercises between the U.S. and Japan have focused on retaking islands lost to enemy forces – a veiled reference to the Senkakus.

On Monday, Nov. 5, the U.S. and Japan began a large-scale 12-day joint drill involving 37,000 Japanese and 10,000 American military personnel in the East China Sea. However, the two nations cancelled the central element of the exercise at the last minute. Washington and Tokyo cancelled a large joint amphibious exercise scheduled to take place as part of the larger exercise. This came literally a day before U.S. elections and just days before commencement of China’s 18th Communist Party Congress. Significant changes in CPC leadership are at stake in this year’s meetings of the party’s congress.

U.S. military activities in East Asia now include planning a number of inclusive overtures to China. In September, the Pentagon invited China to join the next Rim of the Pacific Exercise in 2014. This year China was excluded from the exercise which includes 22 nations. China and the U.S. currently plan a variety of non-maritime exercises together in the near future, such as in the southeast province of Sichuan, an area associated with frequent natural disasters.

In September, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “Our goal is to have the U.S. and China establish the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and the key to that is to establish a strong military-to-military relationship.” Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie called for the two militaries to abandon the old “zero-sum-game mentality” and instead “earnestly respect each other’s core interests and major concerns”.

Shanghai Institute expert on U.S. studies Zhang Jian recently put it this way: “As the world’s biggest and second-largest economies, the U.S. and China should play a constructive role in issues concerning each other’s major and reasonable interests. At least, it should not be destructive”

Despite talks of cooperation and peaceful intentions, China is pursuing a military build-up aimed at flexing muscle over its territorial interests in the East China Sea and other area of strategic maritime interest. China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in September, and plans to form three or four aircraft-carrier-based marine battle groups by 2020. Chinese intentions are to match the U.S. Navy and increase military pressure on Japan with regard to the Senkakus.

Anti-Japan sentiment in China over the Senkakus has been mounting, as Japan nationalized three of the islands this month and set off a political fury in China.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that Beijing will “never yield an inch” in its dispute over the islands.”

Beijing also has reasserted that China will apply any necessary measures to reassert its sovereignty there. The Senkaku, aka the Diaoyu Islands, are a group of uninhabited islands located in the east China Sea between mainland China and Japan’s island province of Okinawa.

These developments come 52 years after the U.S. and Japan signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. That treaty served not only to ensure Japanese security but also to contain the spread of communism in Asia. It provided the U.S. with a base for confronting the USSR, Communist China and associated satellites.

That treaty has come into question as the geopolitical terrain evolves in the post-Cold War era. At the same time, diplomatic visits between the U.S. and China continue to raise repeated signals of distrust and hesitancy. It is safe to say that Sino-Japanese relations will not be guided by America’s favor of one country over the other. Neither will America’s favor be granted in simplistic terms to either one. Relations will continue to get more complicated, and Chinese military buildup will stay on course.