China ran rings around everyone at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Their delegation was a model of coordination, right down to the Q&A sessions where questions from Chinese delegates were evidently scripted. Many commentators expected a repeat performance in 2014, particularly given the involvement of the smooth talking and highly impressive Madam Fu Ying as a member of the Chinese delegation.
Instead, Tokyo took a leaf out of Beijing’s book and emerged as the clear ‘winner’ from the 2014 gathering. Three Japanese speakers were on the agenda and they each remained on message. Right from Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s opening address, the need to respect international law was a consistent theme coming from Tokyo. So too was a strong Southeast Asian focus, with support expressed for Vietnam and the Philippines in their respective South China Sea struggles with Beijing. While Japanese speakers were at pains not to criticise China by name, it was clear to all concerned who they were pointing at.
There was not only coordination within the Japanese delegation but also between Tokyo, Washington and Canberra. For any doubters, PLA General Wang Guanzhong singled out US–Japanese coordination for criticism during ‘unscripted’ remarks in his address. Australia remained largely unscathed here, although Defence Minister David Johnston’s remarks — that ‘Australia welcomes Japan’s efforts to re-examine its security and defence policies so that it can make a greater contribution to regional peace and to regional security’ — did little to assuage Chinese concerns that Australia is well and truly coordinating with Tokyo.
What was Tokyo hoping to achieve through its impressively coordinated approach to the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue?
At one level, Japan’s show of support for the Philippines and Vietnam is an effort to support Washington’s re-balancing strategy. Since he took office, US President Obama has been calling upon American allies to share more of the burden for international security with the world’s increasingly beleaguered superpower. Such appeals have largely fallen on deaf ears. Most regional allies and partners instead use Obama’s Asian ‘pivot’ as an excuse for doing less, not more. But Japan finally seems to be stepping up to the plate.
In the face of rising Chinese influence and assertiveness, Tokyo is also becoming increasingly apprehensive regarding America’s commitment to Asia. Washington’s perceived evasiveness over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and again in relation to Crimea this year appears to have rattled Japanese policymakers.
Their angst is somewhat surprising. Obama was, after all, unequivocal in his support for Tokyo during his most recent Asian tour, publicly confirming that the US–Japan Security Treaty covers Japanese administered territories including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. This was the first time a sitting US president has made such a commitment publicly.
Yet Japan’s efforts to build ties with the Philippines and Vietnam — while also strongly engaging the new Modi government in India and elevating ties with Australia to the status of ‘special relationship’ — can just as credibly be seen as an attempt on Tokyo’s part to develop an Asian balance of power, as Washington’s commitment to Asia may diminish.
To be sure, there is presently more symbolism than substance to Japan’s latest show of Southeast Asian support. Ten patrol boats to the Philippines will not significantly shift Asia’s power balance. Yet it could be an important indicator of things to come should regional concerns regarding America’s commitment to Asia continue to intensify.
Despite its success at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, Japan did not completely escape criticism. Given its consistent focus upon international law, Tokyo was asked repeatedly why it remains unwilling to acknowledge that there is a dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and to take this to third-party arbitration. Fu Ying also asked Japan’s deputy foreign minister why Tokyo continues to flaunt international law on whaling. These are challenging contradictions for Tokyo to contemplate.
The other obvious gap in Japan’s more coordinated approach to this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was the South Korean dimension. Aside from an annual US–Japan–South Korea trilateral held on the dialogue’s sidelines, a stony silence continued between Tokyo and Seoul. A reversal of this situation, while unlikely due to domestic constraints, would clearly benefit any effort on Tokyo’s part to construct a new and truly Asian balance of power to check China’s growing influence.
Brendan Taylor is head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at The Australian National University.