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Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army Wang Guanzhong speaks at the 13th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1, 2014. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

How Japan Spoiled China's Power Play

John Lee

Over the weekend Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff Department of China’s People’s Liberation Army, did a highly unusual thing. During his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore, an annual meeting of Asia-Pacific defence ministers hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, General Wang departed from his prepared speech to condemn earlier speeches by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who presented the keynote, and American Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel.

Having been part of the Australian non-governmental delegation at the dialogue for the past five years, General Wang’s unscripted words were unprecedented, and highly unexpected from any senior Chinese official, given that they are known for keeping meticulously to written scripts. What did General Wang say and why was he so angry?

Before I get into that, let’s provide some context.

China has a dispute with Japan over sovereignty of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands, according to the Chinese). China also has disputes with a number of Southeast Asian countries in Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei over sections of the South China Sea (It’s time to talk tough on the rough China seas, May 21).

This is all old news. Let’s get back to what General Wang had to say. According to his genuinely unscripted remarks, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel “staged provocations to China” as it “it was unimaginable” that these two men would “make such unwarranted accusations against China”.

Earlier, Messrs Hagel and Abe had accused China of “illegitimate” and “provocative” actions in the East and South China Seas, describing what one might call China’s ‘salami-slicing’ strategy to extend its sovereignty and control of these contested waters (China’s salami slicing is dicey diplomacy, November 27).

For the Chinese General, “the speeches of Mr Abe and Mr Hagel have been pre-coordinated. They supported and encouraged each other in provoking and challenging China”. The General referred to “Hagel’s speech ‘as [having] tastes of hegemony’ and laced with ‘coercion and intimidation’”.

But the venom was really reserved more for Japan. In ending his remarks, General Wang declared that “next year marks the 70th anniversary of the victory of the world’s anti-fascist war. China… will never allow the ruthless fascist and militarist aggressions to stage a comeback.” In diplomatic terms, if that isn’t poking Japan in the chest and eye, then I don’t know what is.

Remember that this speech was made in front of defence ministers from the whole of the Asia-Pacific, as well as several hundred official non-governmental delegates, including myself. This kind of talk simply is not normal fare, despite the disagreements in the region. True, it is not a war-speech, despite its pointed words. But if war does occur sometime in the near future, last weekend will be remembered as a significant diplomatic exchange and moment.

So what made the General so unhappy? After all, strategic and military competition between the US on the one hand and China on the other has been going on for a while. The dispute China has with Japan is long-standing and hardly anything new. The short but accurate answer is Japan. Under Prime Minister Abe, Japan has thrown a spanner in China’s strategy blueprint. Here’s why.

First, China hoped that Japan would become less and less an influential player in East Asia. Even though the Japanese coast guard (read: navy) has always been a formidable force that is still capable of repelling Chinese advances in the East China Sea if war actually occurred, China did not expect a revival of Japanese confidence.

Built on a mini-revival of its economy, frail as such a revival remains, Abe’s Japan seeks to play a far more expansive role in strategic affairs in the region. Abe has told the region that Japan will be a major contributor to “peace and security” in the region, and is prepared to use its still formidable military capabilities to do so — something only still ambitious great powers proclaim.

‘Pacified’ in its constitution and mindset following its unconditional surrender at the end of World War Two, Abe’s Japan now wants to be a more ‘normal’ power playing a strategic role befitting the third-largest economy in the world, and an economy still far more advanced and innovative than China’s.

China had hoped that the future contest for leadership in East Asia would be a two-horse race between itself and the US, but a Japanese revival to add weight to the American side is an immense setback.

Second, China could tolerate a Japanese revival, loath as Beijing is towards it. But China cannot stomach a Japanese revival which includes Tokyo using its military and economic weight to resist Chinese influence in the South China Sea, and south-east Asia more generally. But this is exactly what Abe openly intends to do when he says that Japan wants to contribute to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific.

And Japan is putting its money where its mouth is. It has offered 10 coast-guard ‘multi-role response vessels’ to the Philippines. Japan has offered a still unspecified number of similar vessels to Vietnam. Tokyo is upfront about the fact that these vessels will help Manila and Hanoi protect its interests in the South China Sea. Although this is hardly enough to change the military balance of power for these countries vis-à-vis China, this creates new headaches for Beijing.

Remember that China spends more than five times on its military each year than the whole of south-east Asia combined. China might spend almost three times more than Japan on its military but Japan’s naval capabilities are still superior to that of China’s. If Japan is serious about playing a more expansive strategic role in all of Asia and not just in the East China Sea — and improves its inter-operability and coordination with the American Seventh Fleet in meaningful ways — then Chinese dominance is looking even more beyond Beijing’s reach.

China is even more livid than normal since Japan’s revival under Abe has taken Beijing by surprise, which is what nasty surprises tend to do to the ambitious. Not so long ago, Chinese officials would privately and scornfully refer to Japan as a ‘castrated’ power interested only in humanitarian and disaster relief, rather than geo-politics and hard power. Now China has gone the other way to accuse Japan of returning to its ‘fascist’ past.

Of course, China is also incensed that the other major south-east Asian maritime countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as well as Australia and India are welcoming the Japanese revival rather than being alarmed by it. This makes a Chinese ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy far more difficult, if not impossible. But that’s what happens when one tries to take on the whole of maritime Asia at the same time.

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