Tensions are rising between the two largest economies and most powerful military forces in Asia: Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda is using some very un-Japanese language (direct, forceful, naming names) to address what he sees as a growing threat. As the [paywall alert] Wall Street Journal reports, Noda told graduating cadets at Japan’s National Defense Academy that:
“Circumstances in our surrounding regions are increasingly severe, complicated, and remain uncertain, as depicted in moves by North Korea including nuclear and missile forces, and China, which is reinforcing its military capabilities and continuing activities in surrounding waters.”
Those are tough words from a political culture that is often mealy-mouthed, and even more striking because the current Japanese government took office amidst talk of hoping to distance itself from the US and seek a more “balanced” relationship between the US and China.Noda’s latest remarks (which reflect his longtime personal views) came after an incident last week in which a Chinese ship entered what Japan claims as its territorial waters around a disputed island chain that Japan controls but China claims. Chinese aggressiveness — and its failure to rein in its awkward and embarrassing North Korean sidekick — is steadily alienating the ring of countries around it and continues to drive them into Uncle Sam’s embrace.In China, these assertive policies sometimes seem to originate without the blessing or even the knowledge of the Foreign Ministry, longtime observers tell Via Meadia. It is not just that the People’s Liberation Army generally takes a harder line, and its leaders have less time abroad and less understanding of the regional and global realities that shape China’s options; it is that often sub-agencies like the equivalent of the Coast Guard take provocative steps on their own authority without clearing it with higher ups. When the incident — like a decision to send a ship into disputed waters — blows up into a public controversy, nationalist opinion inside China makes it hard for the government to back down.It’s no way for a great power to run its foreign policy in a volatile region, and this policy of random pinpricks has not served China well. It has, however, considerably added to America’s power in Asia: solidifying its alliances, encouraging allies to step up their military spending, and providing strong arguments to those in the US who believe that China’s growing assertiveness justifies high military budgets here.If the smart people in China ever get secure control of the country’s foreign policy, the US task in Asia will become considerably tougher.