By NORIMITSU ONISHI and HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: September 11, 2005 Copyright The New York Times
TOKYO, Sept. 10 – In a muscular display of its rising military and economic might, China deployed a fleet of five warships on Friday near a gas field in the East China Sea, a potentially resource-rich area that is disputed by China and Japan.
The ships, including a guided-missile destroyer, were spotted by a Japanese military patrol plane near the Chunxiao gas field, according to the Maritime Self-Defense Forces. It is believed to be the first time that Chinese warships have been seen in that area.
Although the fleet’s mission was unclear, its timing suggested that it was no coincidence. The warships appeared two days before a general election in Japan, whose results could greatly influence relations between Asia’s two great powers, and weeks before China is scheduled to start producing gas in the area, against strong Japanese protests.
In Japan, where the 12-day election campaign was exclusively focused on domestic issues and on what the media described as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s theatrical politics, the warships were a sudden reminder of its most pressing outside challenge: China.
Until Mr. Koizumi diverted voters’ attention from Japan’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with China, the focus for several months had been trained on the increasing diplomatic, military and economic rivalry with China – much of it taking place in the waters between the countries, filled with potentially explosive issues like oil and gas and Taiwan.
Both Japan and China are determined to wield a strong hand in the oil-rich seas and strategic shipping lanes that lie between them.
“It is like the 1930’s again, when the central Pacific became a vital concern to both the United States and Japan, whose navy was expanding,” said Adm. Lang Ning-li, who until his recent retirement was Taiwan’s director of naval intelligence. “That means there could be conflict between China and Japan, which both see these seas as vital, and can’t share this space.”
Security experts from China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States say all the elements are in place for a showdown over Taiwan between Beijing and Tokyo. No one is predicting war, but Taiwan poses a permanent and unpredictable potential crisis. Washington has a close alliance with Japan, security commitments with Taiwan and a complex relationship with China that mixes rivalry with extensive economic ties.
For America, whose support of either Japan or China has historically tipped the balance in the region, the implications are enormous. The recent comments by a Chinese general that his country would use nuclear weapons against the United States if the American military intervened in a conflict over Taiwan were a sharp reminder that Taiwan’s fate remains one of the region’s biggest flash points. Many analysts argue that such confrontation, verbal or otherwise, could lead to a regional arms race culminating in a nuclear Japan.
Japan imports all of its oil, and because much of it passes through the seas surrounding Taiwan, feels its survival is dependent on keeping those seas stable. Chinese control of Taiwan could hurt Japan’s access to oil, Japan fears. And the United States, which has pledged to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China, would like to count on Japan’s help. During the cold war, Japan conducted joint operations with the United States to keep Soviet submarines out of the Sea of Japan. The submarines are now Chinese, but the policy toward them is pure containment.
“You can come out as much as you want, unless you do something wrong,” said Adm. Koichi Furusho, who served as chief of staff of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force until January.
This cold-war view of China emerged recently in Japan, but Japan’s embrace of it is one of the reasons behind the worsening relations between the countries.
During the cold war, the United States was willing to let Japan remain militarily passive as long as it remained a loyal ally, continued to buy American arms and allowed tens of thousands of American troops to be stationed on Japanese soil.
The Bush administration, more suspicious of China than its predecessor, has pushed Japan to take a more assertive stance. It has called for closer ties between the countries’ militaries and defense industries and has encouraged conservative Japanese politicians who have long wanted to change the Self-Defense Forces into a full-fledged military and revise the Constitution.
In short order, the Japanese government reinterpreted the Constitution to allow it to dispatch troops to Iraq and effectively abandoned the decades-old ban against arms exports by joining the American missile defense shield.
Then Japan assumed its familiar role of junior ally to the United States in containment. In a major readjustment of its defense policy late last year, Japan redeployed its forces away from northern Japan where they were involved in the cold-war containment of Russia and reinforced Okinawa, considered crucial in the containment of China in the East China Sea. Saying that “China, which has significant influence on the region’s security, is pushing forward its nuclear and missile capabilities and modernization of its navy and air force,” Japan’s Defense Agency labeled China a “concern.”
In recent months, Japan has joined the United States in aggressively lobbying the European Union not to lift its arms embargo on China. But the strongest signal yet was Japan’s tougher public stance on defending Taiwan against China.
“The joint statement had less to do with Taiwan and more to do with the rise of China, and how Japan and the United States feel a threat from China,” said David Huang, Taiwan’s vice chairman of mainland affairs. He added, “The joint statement is a signal to China: ‘Don’t push too far.’ ”
The United States may see its future rivalry with China as playing out on a global stage. But for Japan, the stage is Asia and the epicenter is around Taiwan.
Japan, which has always seen its lack of natural resources as its Achilles’ heel, attacked Pearl Harbor after the United States imposed an oil embargo on Japan.
Most of Japan’s oil is shipped through two sea lanes: one directly south of Taiwan and another farther south, which increases the shipping length by a costly two days.
“If you assume conditions are balanced now,” said Mr. Furusho, the former chief of staff of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces, “they would collapse as soon as Taiwan unifies with China. The sea lanes would turn all red.”
For a generation, asserting control over Taiwan has been the most deeply cherished dream of Beijing’s politicians. The separation of China into two parts, in this view, is an unbearable insult to the very idea of being Chinese. Because so few Chinese still feel ideologically bound to the Communist Party, reuniting Taiwan with mainland China is one of the most important ways to bind the government to its public. Standing up to Japan is another, and the two thoughts are increasingly intertwined.
China’s leaders have always felt the need to tread carefully in challenging Washington over its security commitments to Taiwan, preferring to bide their time as the economy grows and the military, particularly its air force and navy, develop into world-class fighting forces. Already, by some estimates, the country has deployed 40 to 60 submarines in the East China Sea, and China is rapidly modernizing this force, acquiring quieter models from Russia and developing increasingly sophisticated nuclear submarines of its own.
But lately, China has shown no such patience with Japan and has moved swiftly to warn its neighbor in unusually blunt terms that any interference with Beijing’s designs over Taiwan will be dealt with forcefully. “I would like to say calmly to Japan, the Taiwan issue is a domestic affair and a matter of life or death to us,” China’s foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, told his Japanese counterpart recently. “It is dangerous to touch China’s matter of life or death.”
Indeed, a potentially explosive tussle is already being played out over large natural gas reserves and potentially important oil reserves beneath the East China Sea. The two rivals disagree over how to draw the maritime dividing line between them in those waters. China has offered to jointly exploit the energy resources in the area, but Japan has refused. Tokyo, meanwhile, has asked China to share seismic data and other information, and more recently has unsuccessfully urged Beijing to freeze its plans to begin pumping gas.
Chinese officials refused several requests for comment on the issue, but Chinese legal experts say they worry that the situation could get out of hand. “China has given out warnings many times, using tough words, telling Japan not to take any dangerous actions that could disturb stability in the region,” said Xiu Bin, an expert in international maritime law at Ocean University in Qingdao.
Tokyo recently upped the ante by granting a Japanese company, Teikoku Oil, the rights to test-drill in disputed waters. China, which has gas projects near the test-drilling areas, immediately protested.
No one watches the face-off more closely than Taiwan, which also has maritime territorial disputes with Japan, but cooperates with Japan and the United States in policing the region’s waters.
“They are going to be colliding for the foreseeable future, and I don’t see how you can avoid that,” said Andrew Nien-Dzu Yang, director of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, in Taipei.
Norimitsu Onishi reported from Tokyo and Taipei, Taiwan, for this article, and Howard W. French from Taipei and Shanghai.
By NORIMITSU ONISHI and HOWARD W. FRENCH