Abe’s Southeast Asian Diplomacy: intersection of the South and East China Sea disputes

Japanese & Vietnamese Prime Ministers Nguyen Tan Dung and Shinzo Abe on January 16 in Hanoi

Japanese & Vietnamese Prime Ministers Nguyen Tan Dung and Shinzo Abe on January 16 in Hanoi

This post was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog:

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Between January 10 and 19 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida paid formal bilateral visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia: seven countries in the space of 10 days. The diplomatic blitz illustrates the intersection of the East and South China Sea disputes, and the impetus this has given to Japan’s policy of deepening regional engagement since the early 2000s.

Six of Abe and Kishida’s seven destination countries were ASEAN member states, and three of them were parties to the South China Sea disputes. In fact, Taiwan aside, the only non-PRC South China Sea claimant state that Japan’s leaders did not visit was Malaysia, which continues to quietly extract hydrocarbons and develop tourism in the disputed area with little hindrance, thanks to its steadfast determination to avoid antagonizing Beijing.

Abe had actually wanted Washington to be his first destination after taking office, in line with his publicly stated intention to strengthen ties with the US, but Barack Obama was too busy to host a January summit. The hasty arrangement of Abe’s jaunt through Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia — he set out on January 16, only nine days after being told Obama’s schedule was full — seems to suggest receptiveness to Japan’s advances in major ASEAN capitals.

Not surprisingly, the Philippines and Vietnam were the most openly enthusiastic about the Japanese leaders’ visits. Kishida arrived in Manila on January 9, exactly one month after Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Western media the Philippines would “very much” welcome a rearmed Japan free from pacifist constitutional constraints. This time Del Rosario took the opportunity to denounce the PRC’s South China Sea policy in probably the strongest terms yet seen from a serving minister, telling reporters after the meeting that the China was engaging in “very threatening” behaviour: “We do have this threat and this threat is shared by many countries not just by Japan.”

If the rhetoric sounded highly-strung, it was almost matched by the two countries’ actual actions. Del Rosario said Kishida had brought with him an offer of 10 brand-new patrol boats for the Philippines Coast Guard, later confirmed to be supplied under Japan’s Official Development Aid program. To put that in context, the Philippines Coast Guard only has 15 ships currently in service, plus 5 on order from France, so Japan is single-handedly increasing the PCG’s ship numbers by more than 30%.

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“Repulsive Little Japan” enters South China Sea dispute

Following his visit to Tokyo late last month, Philippines President Aquino appears to have passed the baton of responsibility for keeping the cauldron of Chinese resentment bubbling to Japan.

Late last month, Japanese Vice Minister of Defence Kimito Nakae made the provocative comment that the relationship between Japan and ASEAN had “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” regarding regional security issues.

Last week the Japanese Foreign Minister attempted to demonstrate that this was no mere empty talk. As the official China News Service reported on October 9 under the headline, “Japanese media say Japan is planning to comprehensively intervene in the SCS sovereignty issue”:

From Japanese media reports: The Japanese government is currently preparing, together with Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, to establish a coordination mechanism for sovereignty issues in the South China Sea and guaranteeing maritime security and freedom of navigation.

From October 11, Japan Foreign Minister Genba Koichiro will visit Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Japanese Foreign Ministry revealed that Genba would consult several Southeast Asian countries regarding the above-mentioned problems. Japanese media have taken this to imply that the country is preparing to comprehensively intervene in the South China Sea sovereignty issue.

The Kyodo news agency reported that Japan would do all it could to build a multilateral framework for negotiating the international disputes to deepen maritime security cooperation ahead of November’s East Asia Forum.

Discussion of this story was bound to be inflammatory, and Phoenix and NetEase appear to have hidden the story away and/or limited the discussion threads associated with it. Among the major websites the most populous discussion seems to have been on Sina, with 20,579 participants and 916 comments:

China should propose to the UN Security Council that the vanquished Japanese be investigated under suspicion of violating international law, wantonly expanding military armaments and reviving militarism from the ashes. China should demand that Japan-the-vanquished be made to respect the protocol of the defeated, truly and properly reform and start anew, and have international observers permanently dispatched to Japan to supervise. [516 supports]

Clearly state that if Japan dares to intervene in the South China Sea, we will decisively cut off all access for Japanese ships from the Taiwan Straits. If Japan dares to retaliate, decisively sink them. If Japan declares war, we should call in the debt of the 35 million lives sacrificed in WWII, have the debt of blood repaid in blood, and take revenge. [402]

Have you seen! Japan’s ambitions have once again started to be laid bare. The “mere narrow strip of water” [separating us – yi yi dai shui 一衣带水], the “enduring friendship” [shidai youhao], it’s all just wishful thinking by China. [400]

Repulsive Little Japan, so arrogant. But even more lamentable is that many Chinese people buy loads of Japanese goods, and jump at the chance to go there and spend up, helping the Japanese economy and allowing Little Japan to support ASEAN countries opposing China, even as Little Japan discriminates against Chinese (making special demands that Chinese people have however-much money in the bank before they can go to Japan). It’s really tragic, alas! [374]

Japan’s strategy of comprehensively opposing China’s “peaceful rise” has been completely exposed. The country’s decision-makers should lose their delusions, abandon Mr Dongguo-type thinking.* It’s time take some active steps to deal with this. [296]

Japan, this country, history shows that if you don’t strike it you’re finished. [241]

Japan is the evil wolf by our side, from the Japanese pirates [wokou 倭寇] along China’s coast in ancient times, to the early-modern invasion of China, this evil wolf has constantly been disturbing our Chinese nation’s peaceful life, we can never treat this evil wolf lightly. [199]

Until Japan is exterminated, China will never have a peaceful day. [194]

The comments in this discussion, especially the first three, are a timely reminder that China’s strong antipathy towards Japan is often not simply the result of aggressive and bellicose “Chinese nationalist” longings for international recognition, but rather of visceral and historically-grounded fear of what Japan might do if it regained significant military power.

The visit to Beijing last Tuesday (October 11) by Vietnam’s paramount Nguyen Phu Trong, and the signing of an “agreement on the basic principles” on the South China Sea dispute, including a commitment to a bilateral rather than multilateral solution as per China’s preference, was probably a timely piece of good news from the CCP’s perspective. Certainly this caught the attention of readers at NetEase, with more than 82,000 participating in the comments-thread discussion there, though the top comments of course were hardly to the Party’s liking:

[We] sign it, [they] violate it, sit and wait for the next one. [14,256 recommends]

On territorial issues there is no negotiation, only war. [8889]

The South Sea can be renamed the Sea of Cooperation. [8406]

[Deng] Xiaoping said, we don’t negotiate on territorial issues. [7318]

“What do we do if the negotiations fail?” – Carry on negotiating. Successful negotiations aren’t the aim, playing for time is the aim. [5667]

That last comment is perhaps the most encouraging, both for the immediate prospects for peace and for the Chinese government itself. It is notable for actually showing some understanding of the Chinese government’s overall strategy in the South China Sea. But of course, public opinion (online or otherwise) is much more likely to become a factor in a time of crisis in the wake of some incident, not during happy little interludes like this one.

And sure enough, the happy interlude was quickly cut short. According to the Beijing News, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Genba Koichiro specifically raised the issue of the South China Sea when he met with his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa in Jakarta last Friday, October 14. The report relayed the Japanese Kyodo story that said both sides had agreed on the need to develop a multilateral framework.

In an ominous sign for the recently-inked Sino-Vietnamese bilateral agreement, the article concluded:

Besides “tightening relations” with Indonesia, ASEAN’s great power, Japan is also strengthening exchanges with Vietnam. Japanese Defence Minister Ichikawa Yasuo announced on October 14 that Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh would visit Japan from the 23rd to the 28th of October and that the two sides would discuss how to respond to “China’s expansion in the South China Sea”.

On Sina the story about Genba’s visit to Indonesia “Japan’s forced entry into the South China Sea issue, claims to be constructing multilateral framework solution”, and another recent South Sea story, “Philippine President protests China and Vietnam’s agreement on the South China Sea” both provoked well belowaverage levels of discussion – partially due to the timing, being reported on a Sunday, partially due to the horrific Foshan toddler case, but also quite possibly because of some instruction that it be downplayed. Equally likely to have been a factor is readers simply being tired of hearing about other countries intervening in the South China Sea. The last word must go to a couple of commenters who stood out for their ironical dreams of Chinese intervention in other countries disputes:

Resolutely intervene in the Russia-Japan dispute over the Kuril Islands, and construct a framework for resolving it!

And:

We shouldn’t negotiate with the Philippines over the South China Sea. The Philippines should be negotiating with Japan and the US over the Hawaiian Islands issue, and the Chinese government should pay close attention to the trilateral discussion, insisting that Chinese interests be upheld, while not ruling out the possibility of intervention, including military intervention.

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* Mr Dongguo was a Ming-era character who invited calamity with his do-goody-goody kindness to a wolf.