Japan and the United States will meet Feb. 19 for "two-plus-two" talks on the alliance between the two nations. It has been widely leaked that the joint statement to be released at the end of the meeting will for the first time include a clear delineation of Taiwan as a key strategic issue for Japan. This only vocalizes moves Japan already has taken in association with the United States to encapsulate Taiwan in the Japanese defense sphere. While these moves clearly show that the United States considers China the greatest threat to its interests in East Asia, the Chinese leadership senses a long-term opportunity for an alliance with the United States against Japan.
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Defense Agency Director General Yoshinori Ono will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for "two-plus-two" talks on the alliance between the two countries. It has already been leaked that the joint statement issued at the talks' conclusion will include a declaration that Taiwan represents a mutual strategic concern — a change for Tokyo, which previously preferred to let such things go unsaid. While Beijing obviously will react to this news with consternation, it is unlikely the Chinese leaders are surprised. As STRATFOR noted in October 2004, Washington and Tokyo already were discussing the movement of fighter aircraft to Shimoji, a location that brings them within striking distance of the Chinese coastline opposite Taiwan. Not long after, rumors emerged that Taipei was funding some of the new air base's construction through indirect channels and by letting the United States divert money from Taiwanese defense support to the airfield work. The acknowledgement of Taiwan as a strategic interest of Japan appears to be rather late in coming. Eighty-five percent of Japan's energy supply comes from the Middle East — and is shipped through the South China Sea right past Taiwan. This has long been a reality, but until now, Tokyo was content to let the United States bear the brunt of providing protection and security to Taiwan. Since the end of the Cold War, however, Tokyo has become more aggressive in asserting its own defensive capabilities and priorities. Japan has moved to add in-air refueling capabilities, extended its assistance to the United States in the Iraq war (including supplying U.S. warships and deploying noncombat troops to Iraq), begun developing and deploying its own spy-satellite network and linked itself to the U.S. development of regional missile defense systems. Japan has sought to increase its maritime security cooperation along its main energy supply line — working with India and Singapore among others — and it is actively reviewing the constitutional constraints on its military. For Beijing, these represent troubling moves. While the United States still stands as China's main global competitor, Japan is a next-door neighbor — and one with a history of less-than-peaceful relations with China. Beijing sees the growing assertiveness of Japan as a challenge, but also as a potential opportunity. While Washington and Tokyo have a mutual interest in keeping China from embarking on any regional military adventurism or from becoming the dominant player in East Asia, Beijing sees room for cooperation with Washington based on a potential mutual threat from Tokyo. Japan is the world's second largest economy, and its interests do not always appear to mesh with those of Washington — such as on the question of energy supplies from Iran — so Beijing hopes eventually to capitalize on the likely, but less apparent, point at which the United States and Japan move from being global partners to global competitors. Whether Washington sees this potentiality — or views it as a threat — is unclear, but the U.S. government obviously views China as a clearer and more present danger, and is working with allies in the region to step up the containment of the Middle Kingdom. Tokyo's overt moves to firm up its security relationship with Taiwan, then, further tighten the noose around Beijing and may instigate more rapid and creative responses from the Chinese leadership as it seeks to counter the containment ring now closing in.