Sunday, April 26, 2009

Japan Gets Message from Chinese Naval Celebration

On April 23, 21 naval vessels from 14 countries including the United States, South Korea, and India were invited to the international fleet review staged by the PLA navy on its 60th Anniversary. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, however, was excluded from the show and had to content itself with watching from the wharves of Qindao Port through the eyes of its Deputy Chief of Staff Admiral Koji Kato. None of the media reports says anything about a North Korean vessel being there, but it’s hard to believe that they would have snubbed their most friendly neighbor.

I can think of two ways to understand this. First, the Chinese authorities fear that a Japanese gesture of amity and tribute—the presence of a Japanese military vessel—at a celebration of the Chinese military would infuriate a significant portion of the Chinese public. They face enough risks to China’s political stability as it is; they don’t need another irritant however minor it may be. The other possibility is that this is a probe, much like the PLA vessels popping up around Japanese waters. The Chinese authorities are pushing their Japanese counterparts to see if and how much they’ll push back. I think the first one is by far the dominant reason, though I’m sure that the second effect is not going unnoticed over there. And hardliners there would enjoy nothing more than to stick it to Japan just for the fun of it. The Chinese authorities are no more a monolith than, say, Japan’s own LDP.

The story is not without its bright side—the Chinese Communist Party may be authoritarian, but it shows that definitely not totalitarian—the constituency matters. But it does give the lie to any speculation that China will be able to pull Japan away from its alliance with the United States as the result of the pull from the Chinese economy. It does nothing to alleviate the Japanese anxiety over the steady but opaque Chinese military buildup, as well as the military incidents that seem to happen every once in a while in Japanese-controlled areas of disputed waters*.

* As the Chinese Navy grow, so will the frequency of those incidents. A goodwill gesture here, a goodwill gesture there would help build the kind of relationship that helps in minimizing the fallout. The Chinese authorities can’t be unaware of that. They just couldn’t afford the political risk.


plutarch said...

Great post - I agree with you - think it is more of the first point and the Chinese authorities sticking to the Japanese - sounds like stayed tuned re. frequency of incidents in disputed waters - dragon is emerging as dominant power

Jun Okumura said...

Plutarch: Thank you for the compliment. You’re one of those people who keep my blog alive. (I also enjoy slamming ill-prepared comments, but that’s another story.)

Actually, I’m a tweener with regard to China’s future as a military power. Our most important strategic interests—market access and energy security—are consonant. The disputed waters are fairly trivial in this respect. The potential cause of the fattest of fat tails is Taiwan, but that’s first and foremost a U.S.-China issue. And speaking of the United States, we do have an excellent ally there. It’s not just the nuclear umbrella. U.S. military technology is superior to Russia’s, if more expensive. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a far cry from Japan’s security arrangement with the United States, among other things because China and Russia have very different national interests in the mid- to long-term. Then there are the long-term (20-, 30-year) social and economic prospects, which to me look at least as good for Japan as it does for China.

All this doesn’t mean that China will never cause serious problems for Japan. And you know what Yogi Berra said about predicting the future.

Anonymous said...

can i follow you on twitter -

Jun Okumura said...

Hmm, an anonymous Anonymous? I haven't seen that one before.

Sorry, I don't tweet. It's not that I have anything against it in principle. To the contrary, it looks like so much fun I won't be able to do what little I do that is useful if I start tweeting. Thanks for asking though.