Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe's declaration of aid for Asian countries, coupled with offers to sit down for talks with China, is a major step that could well offer a pathway to new stability in the region's seas -- if China will respond better than its bluster at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asia Security Summit in Singapore.
Abe was specific in his offers to China: Words, not conflict; operate the 2007 agreement he sought between Japan and China for maritime and air communications to avoid miscalculations; start now to create a roadmap for success at next year's important East Asia Summit, its 10th anniversary and a key time for progress; publicly disclose each step in military budgets so that they can be cross-checked, because "sunshine is the best disinfectant."
Simultaneously, Abe made clear that Japan will be proactive, offered "utmost support" to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and was equally specific. What will Japan actually support, and how? Ten new patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard; three new patrol ships to Indonesia, already underway; similar vessels to Vietnam, to be constructed; all followed by scores of expert instructors with technical skills.
While U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's sharp denunciation of China's high-handed efforts to seize the South China and East China Seas commanded the headlines, it was Abe, keynoting the dialogue, who offered peaceful solutions and long-term regional security.
How China will respond is uncertain, although its leaders have a history of refusing to talk except on their own terms. They also renege or refuse to act on agreements, such as with ASEAN countries not to use force in the South China Sea, with Japan to better communicate at sea and in the air, and with the Philippines not to occupy Scarborough Shoal. The latter is typical. The United States in 2012 negotiated an agreement for both China and the Philippines to remove forces from Scarborough. The Philippines did. China stayed.
Yet China, when under pressure, has been known to act in its own best interests, beyond the bluster displayed at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Chinese officials at the meeting were prepared for U.S. criticism from Hagel but received much more than they bargained for. Hagel, in unusually strong language, said the U.S. "firmly opposes any nation's use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force" in the South China Sea. A senior Chinese military official, Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, complained that Hagel's remarks were more than expected and "full of hegemonism." Later a Chinese military professor, Major Gen. Zhu Chenghu, said the U.S. was making "very, very important strategic mistakes."
From Singapore, the discussion then moved to the G7 meeting in Brussels, where the group of leading nations -- the U.S., Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Canada, and Italy -- "oppose any unilateral attempt" to assert claims in the East China Sea, where China threatens Japan's Senkaku Islands, or in the South China Sea, where China opposes the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
With world leaders, east and west, voicing their concerns to China, it may well be Japan's strengthening of its neighbors, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, that will give China pause.
Freedom of the seas has been accepted worldwide since the days of the early Greeks and Romans, Japan's Abe told the meeting in Singapore. He described the rule of law at sea and asked, "What exactly do we mean in concrete terms?" He answered with three principles:
- States shall make and clarify their claims based on international law.
- States shall not use force or coercion in trying to drive their claims.
- States shall seek to settle disputes by peaceful measures.
If China continues to disregard these principles and stays in the internationally accepted zones of countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, it may well be the other side of Abe's dual offer -- defensive armed aid to those countries -- that will deter aggression and bring stability back to Asia.