Asia's Cold War will bring instability to region

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera talks about the dispute with China. 

The closer that countries come to confrontation, the more difficult it becomes to step back from the brink of disaster. How many times has history proved the truth of this statement and yet nations in North-east Asia seem oblivious to the potential consequences of their bellicose actions.

This week has seen speculation that Japan may be about to acquire "pre-emptive military strike capability", which, if true, would greatly ratchet up tensions between Japan and China, not to mention Japan and North Korea. This would certainly not make South Korea happy either.

Admittedly, the past week has also seen moves by Tokyo to secure a (much needed) summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China's President Xi Jinping. Sadly, indications are that Beijing has ruled out the possibility of such a summit meeting with Mr Abe aimed at defusing the territorial row between the two countries over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Indeed, what point is there in Tokyo requesting a summit meeting with Beijing in one breath while talking at the same time of beefing up its regional military strike capability to an extent that would make Japan as much of a potential threat to China as China is to Japan?

It is all very well for Japan's Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera to say that "there is no change in our basic stance of defence-only policy" after his ministry concluded an interim defence review. After all, the review concluded that Japan's armed forces (so-called Self Defence Forces, or SDF) should be able to "deter and respond to ballistic missiles" at the same time.

For good measure, Mr Onodera added: ". . . if Japan faces various threats, we must prevent an attack by using our country's defence capabilities." It is hard to see in what way "preventing" such an attack differs from "pre-empting" one.

The interim defence review, which will be followed by a final one at the end of this year, suggested (according to a Kyodo news agency report) that "Japan should take on a greater security role and beef up its defence capabilities, including acquiring the capability to attack enemy bases, amid China's growing assertiveness and North Korea's nuclear and missile threats".

In what could be a major shift in defence policy, the review is also said to have indicated that Japan should strengthen the marine functions of the SDF and improve surveillance over a wide area covering remote islands, apparently including the disputed areas. All this is taking place against a backdrop of increasing regional tensions.

Japan scrambled fighter jets last Wednesday, after a Chinese aircraft was spotted flying between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island. Five Chinese naval vessels passed through the same area last Thursday.

It may be that only a Cold War-style "balance of terror" between nuclear-armed East Asian states will bring an uneasy stability to the region. But what a dismal prospect that is.

 


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