Chinese-Japanese Tensions Test U.S. Strategy

Friction between Asia's established economic power — Japan — and increasingly competitive China forces U.S. officials to rethink a long-term strategy in the region.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Chinese and Japanese diplomats are searching for a way to bring their countries relationship out of a deep freeze. China halted high-level government contacts last October, in a dispute over how Japan views it's World War II history. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, from Beijing, the tensions between the two Asian nations are putting Washington in an increasingly difficult spot.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

On Thursday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary, Shinzo Abe, blasted China saying no mature country would exert political pressure by suspending summit meetings. On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said China and South Korea were the only nations criticizing his visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. The temple commemorates Japan's war dead including several World War II war criminals. Shrian Huang(ph) a professor of International Relations at People's University in Beijing says the situation, viewed from China, looks grim.

Professor SHRIAN HUANG (Professor, People's University): (speaks foreign language):

KUHN: Five years ago, Sino-Japanese relations may not have been good, he says, but at least at the time, military conflict was unthinkable. Now that prospect is conceivable. There's a strong feeling of enmity between both sides, he adds, and there are territorial disputes over the Dalu Islands and oil fields in the East China Sea that could trigger conflict.

(soundbite of crowd chanting)

KUHN: The downward spiral of relations between Japan and China began last April when thousands of Chinese took to the streets protesting Japanese school textbooks, that they said whitewashed Japan's World War II aggression. Later, China effectively torpedoed Japan's bid to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. In September, China sent warships to an area of disputed gas fields under the East China Sea. Japan's Foreign Minister, Taro Aso warned last month that China's opaque military buildup and nuclear capabilities pose a considerable threat.

Earlier this month, an editorial in China's official People's Daily Newspaper predicted long-term conflict with Japan. Robert Ross is an expert on Chinese Foreign Policy at Boston College. He says that beneath all the nationalist rhetoric lies a fundamental power shift in East Asia.

Mr. ROBERT ROSS (Boston College): What you see going in Sino-Japanese relations is a classic ride the China phenomenon. Where the Japanese are responding to Chinese power by getting close to the United States, and by beefing up their own defense capabilities, and becoming a more, if you will, normal power.

KUHN: Ross adds that the challenge the U.S. now faces is now to maintain its alliance with Japan without getting drawn into its conflicts. For now, Washington is reluctant to criticize its main Asian ally.

Deputy Secretary of State ROBERT ZOELLICKE: We want Japan to play a larger role, regionally and globally.

KUHN: Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellicke told reporters in China on Wednesday that he did not believe that Sino-Japanese tensions were harming U.S. interests.

ZOELLICKE: I don't think it's affected our interests. I think that what is striking is that both Japan and China raised the topic with the United States.

KUHN: They raised it in November during President Bush's visit to Japan and China. According to Japan's Kyodo's News Agency, Prime Minster Koizumi told President Bush that he would continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine even if the U.S. asked him not to. Michael Green, the former Director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council said in an interview with Japan's Mainichi Shimbun Newspaper last month, that some Bush Administration officials want Koizumi to stop visiting the shrine.

Kiichi Fujiwara is a professor of politics at The University of Tokyo. He describes two schools of thought within the Bush Administration. One sees China as a threat, and advocates siding with Japan in containing China. Another seeks to maintain the current balance of power.

Professor KIICHI FUJIWARA (The University of Tokyo): I think I can say quite strongly that, um, Japan and China is in the worst relations since we normalized our ties. And this could work against the balance of power scheme that the more, uh, well pragmatic diplomats in Washington, uh, would like to see.

KUHN: Japan's and China's vice foreign ministers are trying to arrange a meeting for next month to find a way to resume high-level contacts. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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