TOKYO, Feb. 17 -- The United States and Japan will declare Saturday for the first time in a joint agreement that Taiwan is a mutual security concern, according to a draft of the document. Analysts called the move a demonstration of Japan's willingness to confront the rapidly growing might of China.
The United States has long focused attention on the Chinese government's threat to use military force against Taiwan if the island, which China views as a renegade province, moves toward independence. Until now, Japan has been content to let the United States bear the brunt of Beijing's displeasure.
A Mirage jet fighter takes off from a Taiwan highway during a test last July. In a policy shift, Japan is set to announce its concern for the island's security.
But in the most significant alteration since 1996 to the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, which remains the cornerstone of U.S. interests in East Asia, Japan will join the Bush administration in identifying security in the Taiwan Strait as a "common strategic objective." Set for release after a meeting of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their Japanese counterparts in Washington on Saturday, the revisions will also call for Japan to take a greater role in conjunction with U.S. forces both in Asia and beyond, according to a draft copy obtained by The Washington Post.
Although it is likely to anger China, the move is being welcomed by Taiwan, which, despite having been occupied by Japan from 1895 to 1945, maintains an empathy for the Japanese that is rare in Asia. Elderly Taiwanese, for instance, still show delight in Japanese language and culture. Last month, Taiwan inaugurated its $3 billion, Japanese-built bullet train, which can reach speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. And in December, Japan angered China by granting a tourist visa to former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, who was educated in Japan and had an emotional reunion here with a former professor.
"This is the first time that Japan has made its stance clear; in the past, Japan has been very indirect on the Taiwan issue," said Koh Se-kai, Taiwan's special representative to Japan, which since 1972 has had formal relations with China but not with Taiwan. "We're relieved that Japan has become more assertive."
Japan's constitution, drafted by the United States at the end of World War II, prohibits the country from going to war. But there is strong pressure to revise the constitution so that Japan's Self-Defense Forces can act as a real military.
Along with the threat of North Korea, which declared itself a nuclear-armed nation last week, the rise of China has become the primary concern fueling Japan's shift away from nearly six decades of pacifism.
Japan has generally been inclined to sidestep conflict with China. But in recent years, China has dramatically modernized its military while expanding its sphere of influence in Asia on the strength of its booming economy. The effort to extend its reach has included exploring for natural gas near Japanese-claimed waters only 110 miles north of Taiwan and countering Japan's claims to exclusive economic zones in the Pacific.
In response, Japan has also shifted course in the past year, moving to defend its territorial claims in the East China Sea. Last November, Japan dispatched aircraft on a two-day hunt for a Han-class Chinese submarine that briefly intruded into Japan's far southern waters in what many here saw as a test of Japanese resolve in the event of Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
"It would be wrong for us to send a signal to China that the United States and Japan will watch and tolerate China's military invasion of Taiwan," said Shinzo Abe, the acting secretary general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party who is widely considered a likely successor to Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister. "If the situation surrounding Japan threatens our security, Japan can provide U.S. forces with support."
Such talk reflects what diplomats and scholars call the defining drama of East Asia for the 21st century -- the competition for economic and political dominance in the region between Japan, the world's second-largest economy, and China, the world's most populous nation and a fast-developing economic and military power.
"I think the biggest challenge to Japan is going to be how it arranges its relationship with China," the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Howard H. Baker Jr., said on Wednesday. "But how they do that is going to say a lot about stability in this region for years to come. . . . Japan is a superpower; China is on its way to being a superpower. They are both rich, they both have a history and tradition in this region, and they don't much like each other, I think."
Analysts note that both China and Japan have substantial reasons for restraint. Last year, China surpassed the United States as Japan's number one trading partner, while massive investments by Japanese companies in search of cheaper labor and larger markets have become a driving factor behind China's blistering 9.5-percent annual growth rate.
But if their economic relations are hot, politically the two nations are cool. The Chinese complain about Koizumi's visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine commemorating fallen warriors -- including World War II war criminals. The two governments have also battled over the route of a trans-Siberian pipeline for Russian oil and territorial rights in an East China Sea island chain known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese.
The Chinese government granted rights two years ago for domestic and foreign oil companies to explore and drill an area only three miles from Japanese-claimed territory -- a region rich in natural gas and oil. This month, Japan pushed back, boosting its claims to the area by officially taking over ownership of a 15-foot lighthouse built on the island chain by Japanese nationalist activists in 1978.
"It is time Japan began protecting what is ours," said Makoto Yamazaki, director of the Japan Youth Association, which built the lighthouse and freely handed it over to the government this month. "If our sovereignty is being threatened, we have a right to defend ourselves."
But the idea of Japanese military cooperation with the United States in the sea lanes north of Taiwan has particularly rankled Chinese diplomatic and military planners because it goes to the heart of their Taiwan strategy.
On the one hand, diplomats and other specialists say, the Chinese military has embarked on a buildup of short-range missiles, naval vessels and electronics-aided aircraft to enable it to threaten the island militarily if President Chen Shui-bian should take what China considers an unacceptably decisive step toward independence. On the other hand, they added, China has set out to improve and extend its maritime and airborne might in the sea lanes north of Taiwan, with the goal of forcing the United States to think twice about military intervention. Within the next five years, according to U.S. estimates, the Chinese navy is expected to have more than 20 modern attack submarines, including half a dozen nuclear-powered vessels.
Japanese officials said that the official position advocating a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue has not changed. They said the constitution limits the level of assistance that Japan could offer in the event of a U.S. confrontation with China over Taiwan. But the joint statement on Saturday could help lay the groundwork for the Japanese to extend as much cooperation as they legally can, including logistical support such as transportation and medical rescue operations behind the lines of combat, officials said.
"We consider China a friendly country, but it is also unpredictable," a senior Japanese government official said. "If it takes aggressive action, Japan cannot just stand by and watch."
Correspondent Edward Cody in Beijing and special correspondents Sachiko Sakamaki and Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.