Asia-Pacific is geopolitical shorthand these days for Sino-Japanese. At least that’s the impression I got while attending the 26th Asia-Pacific Roundtable of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Yes there were gloomy sessions on how Thai politics was going off a cliff and perky ones about the change in Myanmar. But the topic that dominated most sessions, are ended up intruding itself into the discussion, was the growing friction between Japan and China.
The Chinese speakers, as they tend to, spoke in the same voice. Japan was returning to the militarism of the 1930s; it was not treating China with respect and pretending that its history of military infamy did not exist. The subtext was that Tokyo didn’t get the fact that the future was with Beijing, that Washington was finished.
Chinese spoke of the “new type of major power relations” that Xi Jinping was proposing between the US and China. Much of it sounded, tactically, like Panchsheela type stuff. But at its core was the need for the US to accept China as an equal partner and, my sense, give up maintaining its alliances in the Asia-Pacific. The US hasn’t quite endorsed this but hasn’t fully refuted it either.
The optimists at the conference, mostly from Singapore, argued that the unusual degree of interdependence between the US and China really meant that worries that the two countries would act like 19th century European powers was wrong. “Robust competition between the two is inevitable, but conflict is avoidable. Southeast Asians of course pointed to the ASEAN model, though at the coffee breaks many admitted the ASEAN ws going nowhere fast — because it couldnt handle the enormous power of China. As tends to happen with Southeast Asians, they hoped for “strong leaders” on both sides who would “look beyond nationalism”. The geopolitical equivalent of hoping for a roll of the dice to save your.
The optimists, often Japanese, said they didn’t see much evidence of either regional architecture protecting the commons of the South China Sea. China didn’t want a relationship of trust they argued, not unless this was little more than kowtowing to the Middle Kingdom. “China’s international influence is being damaged by its strategy,” said one Japanese academic.
Tokyo’s response has been to cultivate other Asian countries like India and Myanmar. It ha sought to keep the US committed to defending the region. It is also determined to keep its technological edge in military weaponry over China. But the heart of its strategy is to revive its stagnant economy — and that is still a work in progress.
Japanese representatives at the conference privately hoped that the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, would make his state visit to Japan before Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, came to India for is. They mentioned how the Chinese were furious that Shinzo Abe had been allowed to speak at the recently held Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, had insisted their more junior rep could speak before Abe. “They even offered to pay for the conference if Abe got kicked out.” Didn’t happen and the conference was marked by a fairly large amount of sparks between China, Japan and the United States.
The US State Department was a key sponsor of the conference and the American representation in Kuala Lumpur, however, was negligible. Which, as everyone in the room knew, was exactly why China could do what it was doing and get away with it.