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Japan and US in the Asia Pacific: Countering Chinese Assertiveness

Samundeswari Natesan
Research Intern, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
11 June 2014

The statements issued by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Shangri La Dialogue show the renewal of tension in the Asia-Pacific with the rise of China. The US remarks were a follow-up to Abe’s criticism against China’s assertiveness in the region with a special focus on the South China Sea dispute.

What are the expectations that the US and Japan have in the region and what do they expect from China? Where is the region heading towards?

Deciphering the Statements

The statements at the Dialogue revolved around resolving the South China Sea dispute, Chinese assertiveness in the region, strengthening allies and partners in the region, and enhancing ASEAN’s defence capabilities and posture. It was mostly directed against recent Chinese activities. The Chinese responded to the allegations as being untruthful and a malicious attempt that aimed at tarnishing its reputation in the international system.

Shinzo Abe stated that Japan will play a proactive role in Asia and in the world, under the new banner, “Proactive Contribution to Peace.” It is likely to signify that Japan is resorting to a Cold War stance or that its role has been undermined in recent times. He also extended his support to the ASEAN countries, and advised them to act wisely and follow international rules to settle the South China Sea dispute. He indirectly criticised China for strengthening its military and using coercion to settle the dispute, which is against the rule of law. The repetition of the phrase ‘rule of law’ is likely to strengthen his assertion that China is unwilling to settle the dispute through international law and is resorting to force or coercion.

Japan has resorted to alliance-making with the ASEAN and other countries in the region to their defence posture in the Asia-Pacific. This is so that the ASEAN will not be undermined by China and can prevent the use of force by the same in the future. Japan wants the ASEAN to be proactive and effectively utilise the East Asia Summit to check military expansion in the region and be transparent on their military budget so that misconception can be averted.

Hagel pointed out several security priorities: settling disputes through peaceful means, following international rules, and strengthening the defence capabilities of the allies that were directly criticising China’s recent provocative behavior in the region. He mentioned that countries in Asia-Pacific are working with the US to sustain a rule-based order that has been followed since the end of World War II, suggesting perhaps that the US rule-based order has been undermined with the growing assertion of China. He reaffirmed that the US would increase its military engagement in the region than ever before and strengthen its allies and partners because the Asia-Pacific will play a crucial role in the 21st century.

Hagel also mentioned that if China wants to play a significant role in the region it has to use coercion against North Korea’s destabilising provocation; this would be in its own interest and also help regional stability. This would be preferable to coercion being against neighbours and neglecting that the South China Sea is “a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.” The US believes that with the growing significance of the ASEAN forum, it is essential that each country work together to achieve greater cohesion and prevent countries like China from taking advantage of them.

Where is the Region Heading?

Chinese assertiveness in the region has brought back the US and Japan to play a proactive role. Hagel revisited General George Marshall’s words that “the strength of a nation does not depend alone on its armies, ships and planes…[but] is also measured by…the strength of its friends and [its] allies.” It is likely that the US is resorting to a Cold War strategy by creating alliances and partners to strengthen its presence in the region. The US and Japan acknowledged that strengthening the ASEAN security community can be effectively used to counter the growing Chinese aggression in the region. However, due to the lack of consensus on the South China Sea dispute between the ASEAN countries, it is unclear whether they will be able to cooperate with the US and Japan to settle the dispute.

It is likely that the region will become more volatile with divergent issues like North Korea’s nuclear programme, Thailand and Myanmar’s setbacks in democratic development and various unresolved territorial disputes complicating it. In addition to these circumstances, Philippines filing a case against China in the international tribunal followed by Vietnam’s threat to file a case as well are only toughening Chinese behaviour in the region.

The US and Japan are increasing their military engagement and strengthening regional countries’ defence postures - this is likely to receive a counter-attack from China. The synergism of Japan and the US will first increase conflict among countries and add to instability in the region before gradually lessening tensions.

© Copyright 2014, Southeast Asia Research Programme by IPCS

 

 

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