On the face of it, a debutante ball is an incongruous analogy for a military conference in the Asia Pacific. Yet, clicking heels and epaulettes provided a steely backdrop for PM Shinzo Abe’s “new Japan”, presented without ceremony during his keynote speech at Singapore’s annual Shangri-La Dialogue on 30 May. Abe’s “new Japan” is remaking itself, churning self-doubt with national pride and the rise of China. Under Abe, Japan is quickly undoing the shackles placed on its armed forces by a pacifist Constitution, which forbids a military response except under direct attack on the mainland.
In what Abe sees as a moral response to China’s attempts to bully the region, Japan’s military will make a “pro-active contribution to peace”. If Abe is able to overcome opposition to the move within his country, the military will likely aid allies under attack, export arms, provide training and project naval power on the South China Sea.
It is a role, Abe boasted in his speech, that has been “explicitly supported” by all Southeast Asian neighbours, the West, Australia and India. In short, all except China. As China, a historical foe and an invited guest at the conference, seethed.
Speaking a day later, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel blamed China for “destabilising, unilateral actions” in the South China Sea, which he poetically described as the “beating heart of the Asia-Pacific”. After listing all of China’s aggressive actions, ending with its moving an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast in early May, Hagel laid out plans to arm allies and move well over half of its air and naval power into the region by 2020.
Rich in military detail on deployments, the speech contained a warning to China that its attempt to restrict overflight over the disputed Senkaku islands controlled by Japan would be opposed, and reminded it that the islands were covered under a security pact with the US. Seeming to anticipate doubts, Hagel also vowed not to let budget cuts impact the US pivot to the Asia Pacific.
If Shangri-La was the coming-out party of “new Japan”, India was a favourite suitor who did not attend: whether by chance or design, the new Indian government did not send an official delegate. But absence only seemed to make hearts grow fonder: all three major players made favourable mentions of India. Hagel welcomed India’s growing defence capabilities and said he hoped to visit this year. Abe hoped to welcome Narendra Modi to Tokyo.
The Chinese side flatly, and incredibly, denied “initiating disputes”, blaming the US and Japan instead. Scheduled to speak on the last day of the session, by when Abe and Hagel had left, China’s vice-chief of the army, Lt Gen Wang Guanzhong, hit back strongly, if somewhat idiosyncratically.
Speaking from a sense of feeling besieged, in a role that China has assumed with relish in the past, Gen Wang timed his diatribe five minutes into his scripted speech from which he said he had to deviate because “as a Chinese proverb goes, it is not polite not to reciprocate”. “Abe is supposed to promote peace and security… Instead… he was trying to stir up disputes and trouble,” Gen Wang said, repeatedly quoting a mysterious “foreign friend” who told him to “have patience” during Abe’s and Hagel’s speeches.
Alarmingly, if Gen Wang’s stand spelt inflexibility, his language (he called Hagel’s speech “hegemonistic” with “coercion and intimidation”) was ritually “revolutionary” in the communist sense — exhibiting a strain of paranoia that may signal pressures back home.
Bombings by Uighur separatists in Xinjiang killed 43 people and injured 90 on 23 May after President Xi Jinping put his prestige behind an anti-terrorism drive. Violence has, in fact, escalated this year, when Beijing is on edge because of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on 4 June.
This new tone was reflected in the communist party’s Global Times recently. In an editorial attacking a Bill passed by the US Congress to commemorate the massacre, the paper attacked the “rascally varmints in the US Congress”, which had “become a garbage heap”. The last time the leadership felt pushed into a corner, Tiananmen happened.