June 06, 2014

We’re Not in Shangri-La Anymore: Both China and Japan Need Doses of Reality

By Nicole Yeo

If there is anything that the most anticipated speeches at the 2014 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit highlighted, it is that both the Chinese and Japanese have their strategic heads in the clouds, or at least, stuck in Shangri-La.

During his closing remarks at IISS’ 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen articulated a general consensus among participants on the “hard hitting” nature of the remarks made at this year’s iteration of the region’s de facto defense summit.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, this year’s keynote speaker, did not mince words about the active role he envisions the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) playing in order to ensure “peace, order and stability” not just for Japan, but on behalf of Japan’s Southeast Asian counterparts as well.  Chinese Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) General Staff Department, veered from his scripted speech to chastise American and Japanese remarks made earlier, commenting with frustration that “assertiveness has come from the joint actions of the United States and Japan, not China.”

Although analysts did note the more pointed comments that key speakers directed at each other, the comments themselves are not terribly surprising.  What is more perplexing about the juxtaposition of Abe’s and Wang’s speeches was their structural similarity.  Both speakers emphasized their respective country’s role as an instrumental force for peace in the region.  Both speakers highlighted the need for regional dialogue and cooperation, and also endorsed ASEAN-centric mechanisms as a critical part of the regional architecture.  Both also went to significant lengths to emphasize their countries’ active military-to-military ties.  Finally, both underscore the importance of settling territorial disputes through peaceful means.  If one were to explore these core points in both Abe’s and Wang’s speeches in a vacuum, it would seem that Japan and China share several strategic interests. 

Why, then, did Abe all but mention China by name as a threat to the territorial sovereignty of Japan and its neighbors in the region?  Why did Wang propose both confidence-building measures and hotline arrangements to dispel “misperceptions and miscalculations” with Russia, ASEAN member states and even the United States, but not with Japan? 

World War II references or recently trendy World War I analogies aside, a key factor that currently fuels the obstinacy of both China and Japan against sustaining engagement with each other on critical defense and security issues within the region is each state’s view of itself as exceptional in all ways.

Force for Peace

Wang’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue reflected not only his country’s official view of itself as peaceful, but also China’s assumption that other states also know that they are inherently peaceful.  This assumption has led the Chinese to perceive that players like the United States and Japan intentionally play up an imagined threat that China poses to the region as part of an anti-China political conspiracy.  There are clearly many in the United States and in the Asia-Pacific region who continually grapple with how to accommodate China’s peaceful rise.  However, the uncertainty and distrust surrounding China’s maritime interests are not an illusion.  If China asserts its right to “take countermeasures against others’ provocation [in the maritime domain]” as Wang said, then the Chinese also have to accept that the rest of the world also reserves the right to do the same.  This year’s Shangri-La remarks show that China fails to understand or admit that strategic distrust will not be resolved by feeding to the rest of the world more images of China’s lack of a “gene for invasion” or of Shangri-La (apparently, like China) as a “beautiful, serene, harmonious and prosperous homeland.”  This fundamental Chinese misunderstanding is a major impediment to any serious dialogue or meaningful engagement in the region. 

Peaceful Dispute Resolution

For Japan, despite having formally recognized the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, the state has deliberately resisted submitting its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands for international arbitration.  While Abe’s speech praised the Philippines for their efforts to settle their own South China Sea territorial dispute with China through international arbitration, Japan insists that there are no grounds for the arbitration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands because there is no dispute over what is already Japanese sovereign territory.  However, there have been suggestions that Japan should be leading by example.  If Japan is going to continue to applaud the Philippines and articulate its stand on the importance of the rule of law, Japan’s words could stand to be bolstered by the country exercising its right to take legal action against China. 

Admitting to a Problem

Abe and Wang would like to have the world believe that their respective countries are the region’s biggest champion of regional cooperation, dialogue and a rules-based system.  The only problem is that based on both Chinese and Japanese official worldviews, the burden is on the other to get with the program.  What would really be more helpful in relieving some of the region’s tensions would be, even if privately, admitting that they are part of the problem.

(Written by Nicole Yeo/CNAS; Photo Credit: The International Institute for Strategic Studies)

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