Rebuffing criticism from the U.S. and Japan, China sent a clear message at an international security meeting that it will press ahead with territorial claims that have caused friction with Japan and smaller neighbors.
After U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described China’s actions in the South China Sea as destabilizing and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan did not welcome dangerous encounters by jets or warships, Chinese Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong broke from prepared remarks to call their speeches “unimaginable.” The leaders were at the annual Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore last weekend.
The forum highlighted the growing pains in Asia as China emerges as a military and economic power, challenging decades of U.S. dominance. Even as Chinese officials spoke of their desire to play a cooperative role in the region, Wang, the deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said Hagel’s speech was “full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation,” and Abe’s speech was understood to have targeted China without mentioning the nation by name.
“China will seek to spin both Hagel’s and Abe’s remarks in a negative, provocative way,” said Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “The public diplomacy of all the key stakeholders in Asian security has become starker in the past two years. In some instances, it is descending to the level of a propaganda war.”
While China has said it wants a “sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” in recent months it “has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel said in prepared remarks on May 31 at the forum.
After his speech, China’s Major-General Yao Yunzhu quizzed him for about three minutes, ignoring two attempts by the moderator to cut her off. Yao asked if recent U.S. statements about islands in the East China Sea being covered by its defense treaty with Japan were a threat of coercion or intimidation. China also claims the East China Sea islands.
“I thought I made America’s position clear in my remarks about the position we take on disputed territories,” Hagel replied. “In fact, I think I repeated our position a number of times.”
Before Abe delivered the keynote speech on May 30, former Chinese deputy foreign minister Fu Ying took part in a televised panel session where she said Abe won’t acknowledge that parts of the East China Sea are even in dispute and is using tensions as an excuse to expand the role of Japan’s defense forces.
“The Chinese delegation and Chinese outside this conference room and many foreign friends have this feeling that the speeches of Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel are a provocative action against China,” said Wang. “If we look at the actions they have taken, we have to ask, who is actually making provocation and creating troubles, disputes?”
The U.S. has departed from its claim that it won’t pick sides in disputes in Asia, according to Zhou Qi, a senior researcher at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who was part of the Chinese delegation to the dialogue.
“Americans may want to use this forum to reassure its allies and win more support,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s all rhetoric; the U.S. has indeed remarkably ratcheted up its toughness against China in the South China Sea issues.”
Vietnam said China rammed and sank one of its fishing boats on May 26 near an oil rig China has placed in waters off Vietnam’s coast. The sinking happened two days after Chinese fighter jets flew within tens of meters of Japanese surveillance planes in the East China Sea.
Amid the tension, Hagel echoed President Barack Obama in calling for the U.S. and China to “develop a new model of relations – a model that builds cooperation, manages competition, and avoids rivalry.” The U.S. is increasing its military-to-military engagement with China, he said.
Debates and disputes are “only natural as the two countries try to build a new model of major country relations,” Wang said in response to questions after his speech. “It is not anything strange or anything we should be afraid of.”
The U.S. dilemma in handling China’s rise is mirrored in the balancing act of smaller nations in Southeast Asia. Ministers from Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia acknowledged at the forum the inevitability of China’s influence, highlighting the importance of engaging the nation while voicing concern about the South China Sea.
“The rise of China is a reality, and we want to see a peaceful rise,” Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs for Thailand, told reporters. “Peaceful rise depends on the intention of China and also depends on all of us providing space for a peaceful rise.”
Vietnam said its relations with China are good and is requesting talks with high-level Chinese officials over the oil-rig dispute.
“We believe that the armies of the two countries must exercise utmost restraint, trust and cooperation,” Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh said at the forum, while adding Vietnam demanded China withdraw its rig. Vietnam and China have “assisted each other during hard times and good,” he said.
Vietnam has prepared evidence for a legal suit challenging China’s claim to the waters and is considering the best time to file it, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said in an interview on May 30.
In his speech, Abe defended his administration’s efforts to toughen Japan’s defense posture and said Japan will provide aid to help Southeast Asian nations protect the seas. He framed Japan’s plans for a more active contribution to security as the path for “new Japanese.”
“‘Proactive Contribution to Peace’ -- the new banner for such ‘new Japanese’ -- is nothing other than an expression of Japan’s determination to spare no effort or trouble for the sake of the peace, security, and prosperity of Asia,” he said.
Abe increased Japan’s defense budget for two years in a row in the face of the territorial spat with China. He is seeking to reinterpret the U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution to let Japanese troops defend allies and use weapons more freely.
“It was well-advised of Mr. Abe to speak of the new Japanese, as a way of undermining Chinese claims that deep down Japan has not changed since 1941, that militarism is just below the surface,” said Lowy’s Medcalf. “It was smart of Abe to express remorse for Japan’s historic aggression - this will help shift international attention to the dangerous tensions of the present.”
Abe’s speech and his answers to questions from the audience were “wonderful,” according to feedback from participating countries, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.
Abe’s speech was “very dangerous,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Japan is further deviating from its pacifist creed and increasingly becoming a security threat in East Asia.”
Japan protested China’s “assertions and slurs” against Abe, which were based on “an absolute misperception of the facts,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today in Tokyo. “Japan made a strong protest to China.”
While the countries exchanged sharp words at the conference, they will have to find a way to cooperate because they are economically interdependent, according to Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“These countries, especially the U.S., China and Japan, have to work together in building a lasting, stable regional security environment, and the Shangri-La Dialogue could serve as a good way to let off steam,” he said. “Certainly, in private meetings, I’m sure the leaders of these and other countries know they have to work together.”