China and other Asian nations are beginning to assess how the recent election victory by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will alter Japanese defense policies.

Beijing is hoping for a reversal or at least a slowdown of Japan’s efforts in recent years to build up its defenses against the growing military power of China, especially any joint defense efforts with the United States.

Asian security issues are expected to be high on President Obama’s agenda when he visits China in November.

The DPJ’s landslide victory Aug. 30 prompted calls among leaders for an “equal U.S.-Japan relationship.” But it may be weeks before it is clear what such an equal relationship will mean.

Japan’s conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun has called for continuity “based on the alliance.” The more moderate Yomiuri Shimbun thinks the DPJ, in calling for an alliance of equals, is “simply clinging to an abstract idea that lacks specific policies” and it warned the DPJ to “avoid words and actions that could weaken the alliance.”

Japan’s liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun has forecast that the new policy will be revealed in two weeks when new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama attends the U.N. General Assembly and Group of 20 summit this month. Asahi also wants “reassurance to the Japanese people and the international community.” No one seems to know whether the DPJ really wants to renegotiate the Pentagon plans for Japan to fund the transfer of most U.S. military forces from Okinawa to Guam in the next few years.

Japan’s neighboring countries are also worried about major changes by the DPJ in its defense strategy. Hong Kong’s center-left Sing Tao Daily warns that if Japan “wants to ride this recovery train, its diplomacy has to tilt more toward China.”

Beijing’s Youth Daily says Mr. Hatoyama’s stated intention not to visit the World War II Yasukuni shrine, a controversial symbol for many Asian countries, has been taken by China as a “positive signal.”

South Korean media are concerned about the DPJ approach to China, and to the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. South Korea’s leftist Hankyoreh Shinmun describes Japan’s past “insistence on bringing up citizen abduction issues that are not directly related to the agenda” as having a “deleterious effect” on the talks and now welcomes Mr. Hatoyama’s openness to possible dialogue with Pyongyang.

China’s state-run Global Times warns that Japan should avoid seeing itself as “the big boss in Asia.”

Taiwanese commentators worry that closer relations with China could lead Japan to concede to possible requests from Beijing to push Taiwan out of the U.S.-Japan security relationship.

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo argues for continuity because the U.S.-Japan alliance has been “an axis of Northeast Asian security alongside the U.S.-Korea alliance.

Why does China’s media seem so alarmed about the Japanese military? Judging from Chinese comments, there are seven major developments over the past few years that Beijing is seeking to cancel or stall.

– Japan’s army divisions deployed in western and southern areas closer to China have been left largely intact despite cuts in the north. In 2002, the 700-strong Western Army Infantry Regiment charged with amphibious operations was formed in Nagasaki prefecture and a brigade based in Okinawa. It doubled its maneuver elements and added more than 850 personnel. The F-4 air-defense squadron on Okinawa was upgraded to a squadron of F-15s. Japan discussed deploying ground forces and jet fighters on small islands located about halfway between Okinawa and Taiwan.

– The 2005-09 Mid-Term Defense Program established the Central Readiness Force (CRF). The CRF brings many of Japan’s mobile and special units under a single command reporting directly to the defense chief. CRF units include Japan’s Helicopter Brigade, Airborne Brigade, Special Operations Group (established 2004) and Chemical Defense Unit, which could play a role in against any hypothetical Chinese seizure of the Senkaku Islands.

– Between 1998 and 2003, the Maritime Self-Defense Forces commissioned three 14,700-ton Osumi-class ships, designated as landing ships. Four times as large as any previous Japanese landing ship, the Osumi can accommodate two large hovercraft. 
From 2010 to 2014, two large helicopter carriers are to be built, in this case designated as a destroyer but resembling small aircraft carriers. At 20,000 tons when fully loaded, they will be able to handle AV-8s Harriers or some versions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

– Contingency plans for operations against China have been generated for the first time, and training has been adjusted accordingly. In November 2004, the Japan Defense Agency compiled plans for counteroffensive operations in the event China seized the disputed Senkaku Islands east of Taiwan, according to BBC reporting from Tokyo.

– The Japanese media have reported that these plans call for dispatching troops, warplanes, destroyers and submarines. During the first phases, sea- and air-reconnaissance craft would provide intelligence. Finally, units of the Western Army Infantry Regiment (Nagasaki), designated as Japan’s amphibious assault force, would retake the captured islands.

– In February 2006, a Yamasaki exercise, a biannual joint Japan-U.S. Army command-post exercise, focused for the first time on a counteroffensive scenario against enemy forces occupying one or more small southwestern islands, according to Sankei newspaper.

– In June 2007, eight Japanese F-2s fighter-bombers deployed to Guam and conducted the aircraft’s first-ever live-bomb runs. It was only the third time that any Japanese fighter aircraft had conducted bombing runs in the organization’s 60-year history.

The shift in political power in Tokyo, when combined with China’s continuing lack of transparency in its military buildup, deserves close attention in the weeks and months ahead. Prior to Mr. Obama’s trip to China, the United States will need to examine carefully what changes the new DPJ has in mind for China.

Michael Pillsbury is a defense consultant and the former assistant undersecretary of defense for policy planning.