China sends a naval message


TOKYO - In a muscular display of its rising military and economic might, China deployed a fleet of five warships Friday near a gas field in the East China Sea, a potentially resource-rich area that is disputed by China and Japan.

The ships, including a guided-missile destroyer, were spotted by a Japanese military patrol plane near the Chunxiao gas field, according to Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces. It is believed to be the first time that Chinese warships have been seen in that area.

Although the fleet's mission was unclear, its timing suggested that it was no coincidence. The warships appeared two days before a general election in Japan, whose results could greatly influence relations between Asia's two great powers, and weeks before China is scheduled to start producing gas in the area, against strong Japanese protests.

In Japan, where the 12-day election campaign was exclusively focused on domestic issues and on what the media described as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's theatrical politics, the warships were a sudden reminder of its most pressing outside challenge: China.

Both Japan and China are determined to wield a strong hand in the oil-rich seas and strategic shipping lanes that lie between them.

"It is like the 1930s again, when the central Pacific became a vital concern to both the United States and Japan, whose navy was expanding," said Adm. Lang Ning-li, who until his recent retirement was Taiwan's director of naval intelligence. "That means there could be conflict between China and Japan, which both see these seas as vital, and can't share this space."

Security experts from China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States say that all the elements are in place for a showdown over Taiwan between Beijing and Tokyo. No one is predicting war, but Taiwan poses a permanent and unpredictable potential crisis. Washington has a close alliance with Japan, security commitments with Taiwan and a complex relationship with China that mixes rivalry with extensive economic ties.

For America, whose support of either Japan or China has historically tipped the balance in the region, the implications are enormous. The recent comments by a Chinese general that his country would use nuclear weapons against the United States if the American military intervened in a conflict over Taiwan were a sharp reminder that Taiwan's fate remains one of the region's biggest flash points. Many analysts argue that such confrontation, verbal or otherwise, could lead to a regional arms race culminating in a nuclear Japan.

Japan imports all of its oil, and because much of it passes through the seas surrounding Taiwan, it believes that its survival is dependent on keeping those seas stable. Chinese control of Taiwan could hurt Japan's access to oil, Japan fears. And the United States, which has pledged to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China, would like to count on Japan's help.

"You can come out as much as you want, unless you do something wrong," said Adm. Koichi Furusho, who served as chief of staff of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces until January.

This view of China emerged recently in Japan, but Japan's embrace of it is one of the reasons behind the worsening relations between the countries.

During the Cold War, the United States was willing to let Japan remain militarily passive as long as it remained a loyal ally, continued to buy American arms and allowed tens of thousands of American troops to be stationed on Japanese soil.

The Bush administration, clearly more suspicious of China than its predecessor, has pushed Japan to take a more assertive stance. It has called for closer cooperation between the countries' militaries and defense industries and has encouraged conservative Japanese politicians who have long wanted to change the Self-Defense Forces into a full-fledged military and revise Japan's Constitution.

In short order, the Japanese government reinterpreted the constitution to allow it to dispatch troops to Iraq and effectively abandoned the decades-old ban against arms exports by joining the American missile defense shield.

Japan has joined the United States in lobbying the European Union not to lift its arms embargo on China. But the strongest signal yet was Japan's tougher public stance on defending Taiwan against China.

"The joint statement had less to do with Taiwan and more to do with the rise of China, and how Japan and the United States feel a threat from China," said David Huang, Taiwan's vice chairman of mainland affairs. He added: "The joint statement is a signal to China: `Don't push too far.'"

The United States may see its future rivalry with China as playing out on a global stage. But for Japan, the stage is Asia and the epicenter is around Taiwan.

Most of Japan's oil is shipped through two sea lanes: one directly south of Taiwan and another farther south, which increases the shipping length by two days.

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