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Shinzo Abe talks China at the Shangri-La Dialogue

Shinzo Abe talks China at the Shangri-La Dialogue

By my count, the word 'China' only passed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's lips twice during his keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue here in Singapore, yet it is difficult not read his speech as being all about Japan's giant neighbour, and Tokyo's intention to be more active in the region in response to China's actions.

For one thing, it took Abe less than two minutes to say that 'all countries must observe international law'. Thereafter, the phrase 'rule of law' appeared repeatedly, and Abe twice said 'Japan for the rule of law. Asia for the rule of law. And the rule of law for all of us.' This is of course code for saying that China's territorial disputes with various countries on the South China Sea should not be solved with the use of coast guards or armed forces (or oil rigs). 

It was intriguing to hear Abe employ the phrase not in isolation or in a narrowly legal sense, but with a vaguely ideological undertone. In an otherwise relatively plain-spoken and matter-of-fact address, Abe's sole rhetorical flourish was to refer to freedom, democracy and the rule of law as together forming the Asia Pacific's 'rich basso continuo that supports the melody played in a bright and cheery key. I find myself newly gripped by that sound day after day.' In an orchestra like that, authoritarian China would be hard pressed to get a job playing the triangle, let alone acting as conductor.

Abe was forthright in his support for the Philippines and Vietnam in their maritime disputes with China (the Vietnamese military delegation seated near me applauded Abe enthusiastically a couple of times during his remarks), and he pledged to donate ten new patrol boats to the former and an undisclosed number to the latter. Abe was also keen to raise the status of the East Asia Summit, calling it the 'premier forum' for regional politics and security, though again a China subtext could be heard when Abe said he wanted the EAS to focus on transparency in regional defence spending. China's opaque defence budgeting has long been a source of complaint among the the US and its allies.

Why all this emphasis on the South China Sea and none on the East China Sea, where Japan is directly involved in a dispute with China, you ask? Because Japan refuses to acknowledge that there is a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This was the 'inherent territory' of Japan, said Abe, and for good measure he added that it was not up to Japan to take the matter to the International Court of Justice, since it is Beijing which believes sovereignty is in dispute.

What of the fireworks from the floor of the conference that I presaged in my short preview this morning? Well, a younger member of the PLA delegation (a colonel, I think), did ask Abe about his attitude to Japan's wartime history and his visit to Yasukuni Shrine last year. Abe replied that although he had prayed for those commemorated at Yasukuni, he had also expressed 'strong, acute remorse' for Japan's actions during the war.

Prime Minister Abbott got a mention, with Abe saying that the intention was to 'elevate the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia to a new special relationship'. Readers will correct me if I am wrong, but I don't think the phrase 'special relationship' has been used before in the context of Australia-Japan ties. (UPDATE: Yes, it has.)

Abe had the manner of a resolute and committed leader. Huge questions remain over his ability to implement his domestic and international agenda, but on tonight's evidence there is no doubting his motivation.

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