Major Powers Cross Swords at Recent Shangri-La Dialogue

Khmer Times, June 5, 2014

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – The Shangri-La Dialogue-principally a platform to exchange views to promote mutual understanding, consolidate strategic trust and confidence, and deepen international cooperation to sustain peace and stability- turned out to be a platform for major powers to cross their swords or carry out their rhetoric war last week in Singapore.

The Dialogue concentrated on the increasing assertiveness of China and regional territorial disputes in East and South China Seas. The United States and its allies coordinated their strategic common position to put pressure on China. In response China accused the US and Japan for staging provocations and stirring regional tensions. Really it was a rare contentious and heated debate in the history of Shangri-La Dialogue. Clear position of each major power was revealed; but it is not sure whether these powers would latter re-adjust their position to accommodate each other for the sake of regional peace and stability.

The on-going regional tensions and spats are driven by multiple factors including the changing regional power structure and order, conflicting paths of power projection, resource security, nationalism, and territorial disputes. The rise of China challenges the regional leadership role of the US in the Asia-Pacific; therefore the US issued its rebalancing strategy towards Asia by inter alia reinforcing its alliance system to check and even manage the rise of China. Such move alerts and alarms China. In the eye of China, the US is exercising its containment strategy against China.

In a televised debate right before the official launch of the Shangri-La dialogue, Madame Fu, chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, raised concern over the US’s alliance system in the Asia-Pacific. She said, “For the alliance relationship between the US and its allies, I think for China, the alliance is a left-over from the Cold War. There was a meaning during the Cold War. And now the observing point for China is the nature of the alliance. If the allies of the US take China on the opposing side, then China will be concerned.”

Sino-Japan bilateral relations have been going on a downhill since the nationalisation of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Island by the then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in May 2012. It sparked the re-emergence of anti-Japanese riots and increased strong anti-”Japanism” in China. After Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2013, the bilateral relations got even worse. China and Japan accused each other of violating sovereignty and territorial integrity over the disputed island and its surrounding water. In November 2013, China unilaterally established its Air Identification Zone covering most the East China Sea; such move triggered strong reaction from Japan and the United States.

Abe’s visit to the historically controversial Yasukuni Shrine further leads to the erosion of political relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Moreover, his attempts to remove constitutional restraints on Japanese military action abroad further raise suspicion among its neighbours. The majority of the Japanese people also expressed their reservation against such amendment to the pacific constitution Article 9 which renounces war a means of settling international disputes and limits Japan’s self defence forces to a strictly defensive posture. Regardless of such concern, Abe is determined to move forward with the reinterpretation of the constitution.

It is clear that Japan is seeking an assertive regional and global security role. Japan is taking major steps to strengthen its defence capability and creating collective defence system allowing its armed forces to engage abroad. In his opening keynote address, Shinzo Abe affirmed Japanese position under the so-called “Proactive Contribution to Peace” to support defence capacity of Southeast Asian countries specifically aiming at challenging and counterbalancing the rise of China. “Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of ASEAN as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight,” said Abe.

The US Defence Secretatry Chuck Hagel reinforced Abe’s position by stating: “China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea. It has restricted access to Scarborough Reef, put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal, begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations, and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.” He also reaffirmed the US’s rebalancing towards Asia which was “not a goal, not a promise, or a vision – it’s a reality”. However, some regional observers keep asking whether US’s pivot to Asia has any substance if at all.

According to Hagel, the US has four approaches in engaging with Asia. These include encouraging the peaceful settlement of disputes and upholding the principles of freedom of navigation, building a cooperative regional architecture based on international rules and norms, enhancing the capabilities of its allies and partners, and strengthening its own regional defence capacities. The US has encouraged if not forced its allies to share collective defence responsibility by requesting them to increase their defence expenditure and capacity.

In the face of such challenges and pressures, China tried to convince and prove to its Asian neighbors its peaceful development going along with concrete actions. General Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief, General Staff Department, People’s Liberation Army, stated, “China will never contend for or seek hegemony and foreign expansion. China adheres to peaceful development, which is its major contribution to security in Asia.”

He also fired back on the remarks made by Abe and Hagel. He said, “Mr. Abe is supposed to promote peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region with his constructive ideas in line with the principles of the Shangri-la Dialogue. Instead, in violation of those principles, he was trying to stir up disputes and trouble. I do not think this is acceptable or in agreement with the spirit of the Dialogue.”

General Wang further stated, “Mr. Hagel was more outspoken than I expected. And I personally believe that his speech is a speech with tastes of hegemony, a speech with expressions of coercion and intimidation, a speech with flaring rhetoric that usher destabilizing factors into the Asia-Pacific to stir up trouble, and a speech with unconstructive attitude.”

Such rhetoric demonstrated that there is no trust between the major powers. Strategic fractures are big. It seems that the major powers view each other as potential threat if not yet an enemy.

Against such backdrop, ASEAN needs to seek greater regional role to shape major powers’ relations. But it becomes more difficult or even impossible for ASEAN to exercise its role given the fact that major powers tend to emphasize more on bilateral relations and alliance system than multilateral mechanisms and institutions.

Without having a stable and healthy major powers’ relations, ASEAN may risk being divided. In no one’s interest, the situation may lead towards a new type of Cold War politics in the Asia-Pacific. It is not driven by ideology but by power and interest. The major powers will establish their own sphere of security and economic influence while smaller countries will potentially become the pawn of major powers’ game.

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