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Ghostly presence

Publication Date : 16-12-2013


At the just-concluded leaders’ summit in Tokyo to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and the 10 member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a specter haunted the proceedings. China was not a participant, but it was a presence just the same. For the Philippines and for some other countries, this ghostly presence was one more argument for Japan’s role as regional counterweight.

Much of the news coverage at the summit’s conclusion zeroed in on the joint closing statement, and in particular on an unmistakable reference to China and its recent, alarming decision to impose an air defence identification zone or Adiz over disputed waters. Japan and the Asean, the statement read, “agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law.”

As host, and as the country most affected by Beijing’s unilateral imposition of an Adiz, Japan can count the inclusion of this restrained but unmistakable reference as a diplomatic victory. A news analysis in the Japan Times spelled out one possible consequence. “Experts say the statement is likely to … keep China in check to some extent, as it will draw international attention [to] its muscle-flexing in both East and South China seas.”

But China can also consider the passage, if not an outright diplomatic win, then at least a powerful recognition of its growing stature in Southeast Asia. We do not know whether Tokyo exerted pressure on the Asean leaders to name China; we find it unlikely, because Tokyo must have been all too aware that the different member-countries measure their national interest relative to China in markedly different ways. Countries like Cambodia would have dismissed the pressure outright; countries like Indonesia and Thailand (the two biggest economies in Southeast Asia) would have argued that specific naming was unnecessary; the Philippines and perhaps Vietnam would have welcomed it. That China was not specifically named, therefore, counts as a check against Japanese ambitions.

This is not to say that the statement was welcomed by the more nationalistic voices in the Chinese public sphere. The English-language China Daily headlined one story thus: “Statement seen as singling out China’s air zone.”

Manila can claim that both the statement and the summit itself were to its advantage. The high-level meeting allowed Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to air a necessary warning about future Chinese declarations: “The Philippine call for the peace and stability in the region is amplified by a recent development in the East China Sea on the establishment of an Adiz, which raises concern on international civil aviation safety and security.” This should lead to “greater concern on the recent pronouncement of Chinese officials that China will establish other Adizs in due course after completing relevant preparations.” The statement’s language on “freedom of overflight” can be understood as a suitable response to Aquino’s warning.

The summit also allowed President Aquino to talk at some length about the Philippines’ preferred two-track approach to resolving territorial disputes with China. The first is to encourage the drafting of a binding Code of Conduct between China and the Asean—a commitment also made by Chinese officials over a decade and two leadership transitions ago. The second is to pursue arbitration in international tribunals, a course of action Beijing vehemently rejects. Both tracks are a repudiation of China’s preferred approach: bilateral negotiations, in which the emerging superpower will obviously enjoy substantial advantages.

Manila is right to call for support from both within the Asean and from the international community at large. And we think President Aquino is right, too, to downplay the other two-track approach he has already set out on: to strengthen our defense posture and to deepen strategic alliances with Washington, Tokyo and even Canberra. These should be seen for what they are: secondary means. The only way to resolve the disputes with an increasingly assertive China is to bring the whole world to the table. To that end, the summit in Tokyo was a small but real advance.


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