Shangri-La Dialogue Highlights Regional Tensions

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This year’s edition of the annual Shangi-La Dialogue was bound to be testy. China-Japan relations are in tatters, as they have been since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last year (and, going even further back, since 2012, when Japan nationalized the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands). China-Vietnam relations aren’t much better off; the confrontation over a Chinese oil rig near the Paracel Islands shows no sign of abating. And U.S.-China relations recently took a nosedive as well with the announcement that the Department of Justice has indicted five PLA officers for hacking and economic espionage.

Against this backdrop, officials from around the Asia-Pacific arrived at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore for the annual gathering of defense ministers, diplomats, and security experts. China was represented by Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of the PLA general staff, and by Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the National People’s Congress’ Foreign Affairs Committee. From the U.S., Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and commander of Pacific Command Samuel Locklear were in attendance. Vietnam’s Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh attended, as did Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave the keynote speech on Friday.

The scene was set on Friday before the dialogue even officially opened. During a televised debate, Fu Ying was not shy about lambasting Japan and the Philippines for their conduct in separate territorial disputes with China. Fu accused Abe of constructing a “myth” about China “posting a threat to Japan” — a myth she said Abe was now using as a pretext to alter Japan’s security policies. Fu also accused the Philippines of being the cause of increased tensions between Beijing and Manila. Referencing the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, Fu said that the Philippines had created a “unilateral provocation to the status quo” by sending “a naval vessel to harass fishermen.”

Meanwhile, Wang Guanzhong, China’s senior military representative, held separate  bilateral meetings with Russia and Vietnam’s Deputy Ministers of Defense. No details were released on the content of their talks, but it’s a safe bet that the meeting with Nguyen Chi Vinh was a prickly one. The meeting with Anatoly Antonov likely went much better, as China-Russia ties are riding high after a landmark gas deal and a joint military exercise. Wang is also scheduled to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel this weekend in what is likely to be a frosty exchange. Hagel said that during his meeting he would discuss with Wang “areas where we think China is overplaying its hand in presenting new challenges and new tensions.” Hagel in turn can expected to be harangued on cyber issues.

It’s unlikely that any progress will be made on bilateral issues during these sideline meetings. Instead, the dialogue is being seen as a larger battleground to promote two competing visions for the Asia-Pacific: Xi’s new idea for an Asian security framework, first announced at CICA earlier this month, and Abe’s vision for Asian security, laid out in his keynote speech.  These two visions represent divergent alternatives for the Asia-Pacific region, and both Japan and China hope to sway neighbors to their side.

Most obviously, the two disagree on the role Japan should play in the region. Xi’s vision of a new Asia security mechanism would function through CICA, where Japan is not a member. Abe, however, envisions an Asian security framework where Japan plays a central role. China is unlikely to ever agree to this, as it harbors deep concerns about a strengthened military role for Japan in the region. Beijing further warns that Japan’s military and security reforms should be worrisome to the entire region, based on the bloody history of Japanese imperialism.

In his speech, Abe tried to deflect these concerns by emphasizing Japan’s respect for international law — an area where some feel China is lacking. With regards to the “rule of law at sea,” Abe presented three principles: “making claims that are faithful in light of international law, not resorting to force or coercion, and resolving all disputes through peaceful means.” The implied criticism of China is obvious. Rivals in the maritime territorial disputes often argue that China’s claims are nebulous and ill-defined, and based on history rather than legal principles. China has also been routinely accused of using coercion to advance its claims, most recently in the oil rig crisis.

Abe also tried to counter China’s warnings that Japan is a threat to other countries in the region. Instead, Abe played up Japan’s strengthening ties with all the major players except for China — the U.S., ASEAN, and India. He emphasized Japan’s commitment to peace, and spent a great deal of time defining the concept of the “new Japanese” as committed to economic growth, peace, and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Wang Guanzhong will have his own chance to speak on Sunday, when he gives a panel address. Until then, we can only compare Abe’s speech with Xi’s keynote address at CICA. Xi emphasized not international law but international “norms”: “respecting sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity; non-interference in internal affairs; respect[ing] social systems and chosen development paths.” The distinction between “international laws” and “international norms” is subtle but important. Reliance on “law” implies the ultimate use of an international court or arbitrator to decide disputes. China has been consistently against this approach, preferring bilateral negotiations. Meanwhile, international “norms” are more nebulous and unenforceable — not to mention that the specific norms listed by Xi have been the defining principles of China’s foreign policy for decades.

Xi’s vision also repeatedly emphasized the uniquely (and exclusively) Asian nature of his security concept. Abe, on the other hand, clearly sees the U.S. as having a role to play in Asian security. An Asia-Pacific security architecture without Washington playing a leading role would be a blow to Tokyo, which is closely allied with the U.S.

The talks at the Shangri-La Dialogue underscore that current tensions aren’t merely tied up in territorial disputes. Those are the symptoms of the underlying issue, namely how the region will adjust to a rising China that wants a leadership role commensurate with its increased economic and military power. Abe and Xi have now officially laid out their differing visions for the future of Asian security, and each side will continue pressing its case and attempting to sway its neighbors in the coming months.

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