“Honeymoon” for Sino-Japanese Defense Relations

On February 26, Admiral Takashi Saito, chief of the Joint Staff Office of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), started a four-day visit to China at the invitation of Chen Binde, chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Saito’s trip marks the highest-ranking visit to China by a decorated Japanese military officer in eight years. The last visit was made in June 2000 by General Yuji Fujinawa, who was then chairman of the Joint Staff Council of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Saito’s visit was credited to a November 2006 visit to Japan by Chen, who extended an invitation for Saito to visit China.

Saito exchanged views with Chinese Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan and General Chen Binde. During their meeting, the Chinese side expressed concerns over Japan’s robust development of its missile defense system. Additionally, Chen was particular concerned over the 2+2 joint statement made by the United States and Japan in 2005, which listed Taiwan as a joint strategic objective. Beijing claims that Taiwan is a territory of China, and the United States and Japan should not intervene on the issue. Saito responded that the U.S.-Japan missile defense system is explicitly classified as defensive in nature and has nothing to do with Taiwan (Liberty Times [Taiwan], February 27).

In a news report cited by China Times, Yang Bojiang—director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the China Institute for International Relations (CICIR)—said that three issues were also likely to be on the agenda for discussions: arrangements for Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) naval vessels to visit China, the oil fields in the East China Sea and China’s military transparency (China Times, February 28).

According to a report carried by Kyodo News, during their meeting Saito expressed the hope that Chen would make a return visit to Japan soon. In the press conference following, however, Chen stated that he will not visit Japan this year because he is concerned of Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-bian, causing trouble and he must be prepared for a Taiwan Strait contingency (China Times, February 28).

Some Chinese news media are calling this period the “honeymoon” of Sino-Japanese defense relations given the frequent defense exchanges at the levels of the chief of staff, defense ministry and reciprocal port visits by naval vessels that have taken place in recent years.