Tokyo Report

Abe Heads to G-7 with South China Sea, Asian Security on his Mind

At the meeting of G-7 leaders in Germany, Shinzo Abe will speak on Asian security.

Abe Heads to G-7 with South China Sea, Asian Security on his Mind
Credit: Flickr/ CSIS

On Sunday, leaders from the Group of Seven (G-7) arrived in Germany, where they will meet to discuss global issues for two days. The G-7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, in addition to the European Union. For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the G-7 presents an important forum for conveying Japan’s concerns about regional security in the Asia-Pacific to a like-minded group of Western industrialized nations. As the Japan Times notes, at the top of Abe’s agenda for the G-7 will be China’s ongoing island-building and so-called land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. As Abe told reporters in Japan before his departure, he will emphasize Japan’s role as the sole “G-7 member from Asia” and push for “substantial discussions on Asian affairs.”

Over the past 18 months, China has completed considerable reclamation work on various disputed reefs and rocks in the South China Sea, in both the Spratly and Paracel Islands. China and Japan additionally dispute the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, where China, in late 2013, declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ). At the G-7, Abe is expected to draw an analogy that Western states are likely to appreciate; he will liken China’s activities in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014. The message will be clear: if the world doesn’t react, China could spark a longer-term geopolitical crisis in Asia. He will further urge China to behave in accordance with international law: the Philippines, a U.S. ally and Japanese partner, has pending case against China’s activities in the South China Sea at the Permanent Court of Arbitration that will move on to oral arguments next month. China has said it does not accept international arbitration over the South China Sea. Japan, while not a claimant in the South China Sea, has been watching events there with great interest in recent months.

In addition to the contentious and timely issue of instability in the South China Sea, Abe will spearhead the G-7’s discussion of other Asian security issues, including North Korea’s nuclear program, regional counter-terrorism, and maritime security. Among other issues, Abe will brief leaders on Japan’s recent decision to lower its greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the December 2015 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris.

To be sure, there are some obvious divides within the G-7, particularly regarding participation in and enthusiasm about the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany signed up as founding members while Canada, Japan, and the United States remained outside the institution. The United States had very publicly expressed its annoyance with its allies—particularly the United Kingdom—signing up for the AIIB. Japan has said that it is considering joining the institution. The G-7 will likely discuss the AIIB, entertaining the United States’ concerns about the organization’s bureaucratic processes, governance, and transparency. Abe will further brief leaders on Japan’s recently unveiled $110 billion infrastructure initiative for Asia—a competitor of sorts to China’s AIIB.

The G-7 has been touted as a group of “like-minded countries that pursue common goals and values.” Abe looks poised to get this group of primarily Western states to come together for a serious discussion of Asian issues. Already, on the sidelines of the G-7, he and French President François Hollande affirmed their concern about China’s activities in the South China Sea. Abe has long stated an interest in having Japan become a more active voice on regional security in Asia. Furthermore, he has shown zeal in pursuing a preservation of the status quo through what he’s called “proactive pacifism.” As he meets G-7 leaders in Bavaria, Abe will be more than a representative for Japanese interests; he’ll be an envoy on behalf of Asia’s status quo regional architecture.