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Japan Faces Dilemma If U.S.-China Crisis Escalates

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

on MONITOR articles on U.S. confrontation
(IPS) TOKYO -- The simmering tension between the United States and China over the collision of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet is turning out to be a diplomatic nightmare for Japan, analysts here say.

"Good relations between the two major powers are imperative for Japan, which is always walking a nervous tightrope between the two," says Tomoo Marukawa, a senior China expert at the Institute of Developing Economies, a research organization here.

Beijing is demanding that President George W. Bush apologize for the crash of a Chinese fighter jet that collided with a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the South China Sea on April 1. Yesterday, Bush expressed regret but did not apologize, and American officials were allowed access to the 24-member crew of the U.S. spy plane today.

Japan does not want to take sides if the situation worsens. Analysts say that this touchy issue has Japan torn between maintaining good relations with China, a traditional rival in Asia, and its loyalties to Washington, whose decades-long security ties with Tokyo are crucial to Japan. The Japan-U.S. Security Pact is the pillar of Tokyo's foreign policy.

Mindful of the fix that the standoff over the plane is putting Japan in, senior government leaders have been pleading with Washington to settle the dispute as fast as it can and amicably.

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono called on State Secretary of State Colin Powell to settle the issue as smoothly as possible, and to take care not to damage relations with China.

The Japanese media has warned of the negative effects on Sino-Japanese relations if the tension is not resolved quickly.

"Sunday's incident, if it blossoms into yet another thorny issue between Washington and Beijing, could put a strain on Japanese and U.S. efforts to maintain their security in the region," Yomuiri, Japan's largest daily, said last week.

While officially Japan supports Washington's stance on the issue, analysts explain Tokyo will be faced with a dilemma if the situation deteriorates.

Japan has invested heavily in its relationship with its giant Asian neighbor China in a bid to forge a smooth working partnership, point out experts. Hiroko Maeda, a China analyst at P.H.P. Research Institute, a private think tank, says current China-Japan relations have departed from their old reliance on Japan's economic support for Beijing.

For instance, China's rapid economic growth has encouraged Tokyo to reduce by 3 percent bilateral assistance starting April 2001, and move to a more mature partnership. Both sides have agreed to upgrade security talks.

China was the top recipient of Japanese overseas assistance last year, receiving $1.7 billion in heavily subsidized loans.

But while economic relations have improved, Maeda points out that things on the political front are not as stable.

A bone of contention remains Japan's colonization of northern China 64 years ago, as well the Nanjing massacre that China says left 300,000 ordinary Chinese dead. Chinese President Jiang Zemin lashed out at Japan this month, when Tokyo decided to accept history textbooks that water down Japan's brutalities during its occupation.

More recently, Japan's plans to support Bush plan to build a National Missile Defense system has raised the ire of China, which sees the scheme as boosting Washington's support for Taiwan.

A Chinese government official was quoted as commenting on this matter: "The bottom line is that every time Tokyo and Washington strengthen their alliance, China's national interest is damaged one way or another."

Naoki Usui, a defense writer, says Japanese planes also conduct regular intelligence gathering just as the U.S. spy plane was doing before the collision, which forced it to make an emergency landing at a Chinese naval air base on Hainan Island.

Washington and Tokyo also share security information they get. "This situation is not something Japan wants to give up," Usui explains. "Japan believes its security pact with the U.S. maintains the (security) balance in Asia."

The U.S. plane was gathering intelligence in waters that surround Beijing's sea strategy, around Japan and Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, as well as island chains like the Spratlys and the Paracels that are also claimed by several Southeast Asian countries.

The U.S. dispute with China has, however, raised some internal issues in Japan as well.

Activists opposed to the presence of American bases in Japan point out that the dispute has highlighted the same reticence displayed by Tokyo when it comes to conflicts with or offenses involving U.S. marines stationed in Japan.

Others say Bush's refusal to apologize to Beijing reminds them of the time in February when the Japanese public demanded a similar reaction from Washington after a U.S. submarine rammed into a Japanese fishing vessel off Hawaii, killing six passengers.

Says Maeda: "Today's situation is different in the sense that with China it is a military clash and evidence is pointing to the fault being on the Chinese plane. Still, Bush's stance does not go well with the ordinary Japanese."

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Albion Monitor April 9, 2001 (

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