No. 3 — January 26, 1996


Weekly Review

--- by Christopher B. Johnstone

In an incident that threatens to aggravate ties among the Pacific Rim's largest nations the People's Republic of China demanded January 16 that a Japanese and an American military attaché be recalled to their home countries. Beijing accused the two men of "illegally obtaining Chinese military information" on two separate occasions in early January. Both Tokyo and Washington indicated that they would comply with the Chinese request, although the two capitals accused China of violating a key diplomatic convention during its handling of the incident. Tokyo's reaction to Beijing's moves, however, was considerably more reserved than that of Washington, suggesting a continuing divergence of transpacific views on how to manage relations with the Asian giant. Although little overt diplomatic fallout from the incident is expected and all sides have moved to downplay its significance, Beijing's actions underline the atmosphere of tension and mutual suspicion that has characterized relations between China and the two allies in recent months — a condition that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

According to Chinese news reports, Col. Kenji Maetani and Lt. Col. Bradley Gerdes were detained near military facilities in southeastern China on two separate occasions before Beijing issued its recall demand. The first incident reportedly occurred January 8, when the two officers were stopped near a military base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Chinese authorities confiscated film and videotapes allegedly shot by the two men while they were in the base's vicinity. Beijing took no further action at that time, but the two officers were stopped again January 11, this time reportedly on the grounds of an air base in nearby Guangdong province. On this occasion Messrs. Maetani and Bradley were detained for nearly a full day before being allowed to return to Beijing. Despite assertions from some quarters that the alleged trespassing may have been "inadvertent," Beijing insisted that the two attachés be withdrawn, claiming that the men had "seriously encroached upon China's sovereignty and compromised the national security of China." The de facto expulsion marks the first time that a Japanese diplomat has been told to leave China since the two countries normalized relations in 1972.

Why the two men were together and whether they were on a joint mission most likely will remain unexplained. Defense analysts say, however, that Messrs. Maetani and Gerdes probably were traveling together only informally and possibly even without the knowledge of their governments; one source indicated that officials in Tokyo were "furious" when they learned of Col. Maetani's trip and his subsequent detention. The incident carries potentially heavy symbolic significance, these sources add, given Chinese fears about the possible "recasting" of the U.S.-Japan security relationship into an anti-Beijing alliance. At least one Japanese daily suggested that the joint travel of the two men may have attracted particular attention from Chinese authorities.

Both Washington and Tokyo protested the Chinese actions, asserting that Beijing seriously had violated international diplomatic conventions by detaining the two officers for 19 hours of continuous interrogation — during which time they were not allowed to contact their embassies. But, in other respects, reaction to the incident in the two capitals differed considerably. The United States took a less than conciliatory approach. American officials denied that Lt. Col. Gerdes had entered any restricted area. They further insisted that the attaché's travel had been approved beforehand by Chinese authorities and constituted nothing more than "routine official business." Although the Department of State indicated that it would comply with the Chinese recall demands, American spokesmen stated that Beijing's action was "irresponsible and most unfortunate" and that "you should not infer from that decision [to recall the official] any admission of guilt or culpability on the part of Lt. Col. Gerdes."

The Japanese response, in contrast, was considerably more restrained. Officials in Tokyo made no attempt to deny that Mr. Maetani had entered a restricted area and at times even sounded apologetic. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested the "strong possibility" that the alleged trespassing had been inadvertent, Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama stated in a press conference that "at the very least it is not good for an embassy official to come into conflict with the laws of the host country." Japanese officials also were quick to say that Tokyo's fledgling security dialogue with Beijing — the most recent round of bilateral discussions was held January 15 — would not be affected by the incident. Chinese officials reportedly assured Tokyo and Washington that the incident is only an "intelligence" matter. Beijing's willingness to accept a "voluntary" withdrawal of the officials in question — rather than insisting on a formal expulsion — as well as Washington's quick compliance with Beijing's request further suggest that all parties to the dispute clearly are determined to prevent it from escalating into a full-blown diplomatic confrontation. Even in that context, however, Japan's reaction to the incident was strikingly cautious and illustrates the high priority that Tokyo places on stable, nonconfrontational ties with Beijing — a policy that at times stands in marked contrast to Washington's. (Apparently to the White House's dismay, for example, Japan was the first industrialized country to end Beijing's international isolation and reopen the valves of foreign assistance after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.)

The attachés' ouster comes at a tense time in Washington's and Tokyo's diplomatic relations with Beijing. Ties between the United States and China — although improving — have remained strained since Washington's decision to grant a visa for a private visit last June by Taiwanese President Lee Teng Hui to his alma mater, Cornell University. Shortly after Mr. Lee's trip China expelled two Hong Kong-based American air force attachés for allegedly photographing military facilities in Fujian province; some observers suggest that Washington's decision in early January to grant a transit visa to another senior Taiwanese official in part may have provoked Beijing's most recent action. Japan's ties with China have been equally bumpy of late, particularly following Tokyo's somewhat reluctant decision — in response to strong domestic pressure — to suspend grant aid to its neighbor after Beijing conducted a second underground nuclear test in August (see JEI Report No. 34B, September 15, 1995); after the first test Tokyo had issued a protest and a warning that further tests could result in a cutoff in foreign aid (see JEI Report No. 21B, June 9, 1995). Although then Foreign Minister Yohei Kono visited China in December and succeeded in warming bilateral relations, Beijing's stated intention to conduct further nuclear tests in 1996 remains a severe irritant between the two neighbors.

Beijing's action against the Japanese and the American defense officials also occurred in the context of growing international concern over China's increasingly visible military activity in the Asian Pacific. For example, Beijing continues to assert its territorial claims to the potentially oil-rich Spratley Islands in the South China Sea — a claim that has sparked considerable anxiety in Southeast Asia and among the five other claimants to some or all of the islands. Interestingly, the second detention of the two military officers occurred near the city of Zhanjiang, the home port of the naval fleet responsible for "defending" China's Spratley claims. Many observers also expect China to make further displays of its military might in the weeks leading up to Taiwan's presidential elections in March. Chinese naval forces staged highly visible maneuvers off the coast of Taiwan before the island's parliamentary polls in early December.

While the latest fraying of ties among the three powers likely soon will fade from memory, the challenge for the United States and Japan to "manage" China's emergence as a world power looms steadily larger. Although the two allies share a common concern over China's growing might and they continue to reaffirm the importance of close security ties, Tokyo and Washington will not always agree on policy toward Beijing — as even the subtle differences in reaction to the latest incident may suggest. As it has in the past, Tokyo's greater willingness to appease China and its desire to avoid confrontation with a close neighbor could become a thorn in U.S.-Japan relations in the future. Tokyo and Washington thus face a second challenge as well: to reconcile their occasionally divergent views and approaches without allowing a potentially hostile China to exploit those differences.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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