Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - For the first time in their decades-old alliance, the U.S. and Japan have issued a joint document that refers to the China-Taiwan dispute. The move reflects Washington's concerns about China's military buildup and intentions as well as Tokyo's shift towards a more assertive regional security role.
Acknowledging the significance of the step, Taiwan's government has welcomed the U.S.-Japan statement, while Beijing voiced "grave concern" about what it sees as interference in its domestic affairs.
The statement was issued after a meeting in Washington of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, comprising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their respective Japanese counterparts, Nobutaka Machimura and Yoshinori Ono.
Previous U.S.-Japan security documents intentionally have avoided reference to the Taiwan Strait question.
A key U.S.-Japan joint security declaration signed in 1996 makes no reference to Taiwan, speaking only of coordination "in dealing with situations that may emerge in the areas surrounding Japan."
"Areas surrounding Japan" were not defined because of Beijing's sensitivities. The communist government considers Taiwan a rebel province and has vowed to use force if needed to prevent a formal declaration of independence.
The weekend joint statement does not amend the 1996 declaration, but says that easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait is among the "common strategic objectives" of the U.S. and Japan.
The document also urges China "to improve transparency of its military affairs," a reference to concerns about Beijing's military modernization and expansion programs, and its intentions concerning Taiwan.
And the meeting discussed "the importance of enhancing interoperability between U.S. and Japanese forces."
China's foreign ministry slammed the "irresponsible" statement, saying it "interferes with China's internal affairs and hurts China's sovereignty."
"Taiwan is an inseparable part of China and the matter is related to China's national sovereignty, territorial integrity and state security," said ministry spokesman Kong Quan.
Anti-secession law worries
The alliance between the U.S. and Japan forms the core of U.S. security policy in Asia. The U.S. has some 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, and has been encouraging Tokyo to take a more confident security role within the constraints of its post-World War II pacifist constitution.
Japan sent non-combat troops to help rehabilitation efforts in Iraq, and has cooperated in the Proliferation Security Initiative, a program aimed at preventing rogue states from transferring weapons of mass destruction.
Both countries have important economic and political relations with China, while remaining wary.
Oiled by the world's third-largest defense budget (after the U.S. and Russia), China is modernizing its navy and air force, while also deploying hundreds of missiles along the mainland coastline pointing towards Taiwan.
Last week, CIA director Porter Goss told a Senate committee that China's military buildup could "tilt the balance of the Taiwan Strait" and threaten U.S. troops in the region.
Japan is also concerned about China's advances, and in a defense doctrine late last year for the first time named China as a regional security risk.
Tang Bi-a, a lawmaker in Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who has close ties with Japanese politicians said Tokyo's stance towards China has been changing gradually, because of Beijing's bullying approach towards Japan and other countries.
Taiwan's foreign ministry welcomed the U.S.-Japan statement, and Vice-President Annette Lu said the move showed that the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty "is receiving international attention."
Some observers in Taiwan attributed the shift to a decision by China to enact an "anti-secession" law. Taiwan supporters in the U.S. Congress have responded angrily to the move, which is widely seen as attempting to provide legal justification for a forcible annexation of the island.
Critics of the legislation say it crosses a red line by unilaterally altering the status quo across the Taiwan Strait - something Washington frequently and firmly advises against.
Su Chin-chiang, the chairman of a small pro-independence faction allied to Taiwan's ruling party, said the U.S. and Japan may be warning China against its plan to ratify the controversial law next month.
Su said the joint statement "shows that if China tries to unilaterally change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S and Japan will not be idle."
National policy adviser Luan Ming was also quoted as saying that the U.S. did not want to see the status quo changed by either side and was unhappy about the anti-secession law.
In the light of the anti-secession law, Washington and Tokyo "have no choice but to harden their attitude," the Taipei Times said in an editorial. "Only in this way can they prevent rash action by Beijing, and gradually stabilize an increasingly volatile situation."
Last Thursday, Ohio Republican Steve Chabot introduced a motion in the House of Representatives calling on the Bush administration to voice strong opposition to the anti-secession law.
It was the latest in a series of congressional steps and statements relating to the anti-secession law.
Lawmakers from both parties have issued statements in the House, and last December, Tom Tancredo (R.-Colorado) wrote a letter to a senior State Department official complaining about the department's "failure to adequately condemn" China for threatening to enact the law.
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