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China, Japan, and General Xiong
By Marc Erikson

At a recent (mid-April) Trilateral Commission meeting in Seoul, Japanese commission member Keizo Takemi, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the upper house of parliament and former state secretary for foreign affairs and defense, gave a small group of journalists an intriguing tidbit: that for a period of time now there had been substantive, high-level Chinese-Japanese military contacts - not just to discuss the North Korea situation, but also broader regional security issues.

Formal bilateral security talks, in which delegations of the two sides line up on different sides of the table, state (read out) their views, disagree, and walk away, are, of course, nothing new. Typically, the Chinese side reminds the Japanese of "history", complains about the latest visit of a prime minister or cabinet official to the Yasukuni Shrine of the war dead, and restates its position on Taiwan, while the Japanese side reiterates its adherence to the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique and raises some questions about the purpose of China's growing defense expenditures. But according to Takemi, that's begun to change during the past couple of years and is now a different ball game, with informal, unofficial, and private back-channel contacts on security issues gaining in importance.

Reasons for China to seek better relations with Japan in the security field are not that hard to come by. After a North Korean Taepodong intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) overflew Japan in August 1998, Tokyo got serious about joint development of missile defense with the United States. In 1999, it signed a theater missile defense (TMD) research and development cooperation agreement with the US. A high-ranking Japanese Defense Agency official (later fired) stated in 1999 that, strictly speaking, nothing prevents Japan from possessing nuclear weapons. Similar comments by officials and academics have become more frequent since the onset of the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula last fall. In March of this year, Defense Agency head Shigeru Ishiba wondered out loud whether Japan might need an offensive military capability to take out North Korean missiles prior to launch.

All that Japanese saber-rattling is hardly to China's liking and touches on its essential national and regional strategic interests: to preserve its often-stated military option regarding Taiwan (national unification), to preserve regional peace and stability to safeguard continued rapid economic development, and to prevent the re-emergence of Japan as a major military power able and willing to project such power regionwide.

Were Japan to join the US in TMD, not only South Korea, but Taiwan - at least de facto - would come under such a defensive umbrella, which would degrade China's military option. In the map, note the range of North Korea's Nodong missiles; with a slight extension in range, they could reach Taipei. Taepodong IRBMs (as yet not deployed in significant numbers) reach much farther. Any TMD system must be able to cover such ranges and hence would cover Taiwan against Chinese missile attack.

Moreover, TMD would be in part sea-based, employing Japan's four Aegis-equipped destroyers. These destroyers would roam the waters around Japan - north, west, and south - and skirt mainland China's and Taiwan's territorial waters. Silent-running Japanese submarines would lend support. Any Japanese offensive capability against North Korea would mean deployment of fighter bombers of extended range and/or development and deployment of land- and sea-based offensive missiles. Japan, well beyond its present commitments under Japan-US Defense Guidelines, would emerge as a high-tech regional military player. Not to speak of a nuclear-armed Japan ... a possibility China has considered and knows could be realized literally in a matter of months rather than years.

Politically, Japan knows the pitfalls of rearmament; China knows the strategic threat to its interests. Containing Kim Jong-il and dealing with the regional security consequences of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic-missile threat now has the two neighbors talking to each other in a serious manner.

A - perhaps the - key player on the Chinese side is the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) deputy chief of staff (for intelligence) General Xiong Guangkai. To some he is known as the butcher of Beijing. He ran the second department of military intelligence ("Er Bu") during the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and is widely believed to have deployed some of his men as agents provocateurs at the time. To the United States, he is known as the guy who in 1996 said the US would not defend Taiwan as "Americans care more about Los Angeles than Taipei" - an innocent reference to China's nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. He also ran a little operation to channel funds in 1996 to the Bill Clinton-Al Gore re-election committee through Democratic Party fundraiser Johnny Chung. More recently, he may have had something to do with the 1998 North Korean Taepodong test. According to the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Xiong visited Pyongyang a few weeks before the test. And he is the arranger of past (and present?) military equipment sales and production agreements - with Pakistan, Iran and others. US intelligence suspects him of having been involved in the Pakistan-North Korea deal that sent missile technology south in return for uranium-enrichment centrifuges.

That's the man's nasty side. But he has another, more palatable one to go with and complement it. As a military attache in (West) Germany in the 1970s he learned excellent German and diplomatic manners. A few months ago, he showed up in Munich as the main Chinese representative at the annual security conference, talking about China's fight against terrorism. He also speaks good English, and apparently some Japanese - so, at least, say participants in the November 1999 Japan-China security dialogue meeting in Beijing at which Xiong functioned as chief delegate. Among recent diplomatic ventures are a February meeting in Beijing with former Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto at a conference by the Chinese Institute of International Strategic Studies (which Xiong heads) and a peculiar trip to Pakistan in March, where he signed new military cooperation and production agreements, reasserting Beijing's influence in Islamabad. His most recent trip to the United States appears to have been last December when military-to-military contacts between the US and China were formally resumed.

Xiong plays the Great Game well and reportedly enjoys close relations with and the full confidence of new Chinese president and party boss Hu Jintao. That he should now - when China's interests so dictate - seek better relations with Japan is not surprising. In return for Japan's taking it a bit slower with missile defense, he can offer help with getting North Korea off its back. In fact, China's position - as evident from some recent articles in Strategy and Management (a monthly magazine run by retired military and intelligence officials) - is more sophisticated than that, signaling Chinese acceptance of US-Japanese TMD on condition of non-interference with Taiwan.

And how does the US fit into this picture? Much like Tokyo, Washington would be most grateful if Beijing were to succeed in bringing North Korea to heel. The United States has no essential strategic interest in Korea now that the Cold War is over. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already indicated that the US wouldn't mind, indeed is seriously thinking of, US troop reductions and eventual withdrawal from the peninsula. There could be an interesting three-way entente in the making, with China emerging as the guarantor of security in the region while the US and Japan maintain their security alliance, but mainly as a bilateral affair without larger regional complications. As for Xiong, if he can help bring this about, he would celebrated as a master strategist in the Sun Tzu mold.

(2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

May 10, 2003

Game of nerves in Northeast Asia (Apr 30, '03)

Land in the middle: The false triangle (Nov 7, '03)

China wary of Japan's anti-war stance (Nov 5, '03)


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