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Guests refuse to play ball with Abe

Updated: 2013-12-17 18:43
By Cai Hong (

At a recent ASEAN-Japan meeting in Tokyo, the host prime minister tried to turn his guests against China.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been up to his old tricks, again asking foreign guests to take sides.

US Vice-President Joe Biden refused to issue a joint statement after discussions with Abe in Tokyo on Dec 3. But the Japanese prime minister sweet-talked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members into agreeing on one, though it did not come out as Japan had expected.

Although it did not single out a particular country, the expression "freedom of overflight" in the joint statement the ASEAN-Japan summit issued in Tokyo on Dec 14, was an implicit reference to China's newly announced air defense identification zone.

Abe had spared no effort in underscoring - even exaggerating - the "threat" from China, which, in his words, might expand its air defense identification zone to the South China Sea. Japan had tried hard to negotiate with the ASEAN members to make a clear reference in the document to China's new zone.

To achieve his ends, Abe paid court to these countries at the summit, which ran from Dec 13 to 15.

At the welcoming dinner for the ASEAN leaders at his official residence, he served them with washoku, or Japanese cuisine, featuring pineapples and other special produce from their countries, as well as sushi made with rice cultivated by his wife, Akie.

On the opening day of the summit, he unveiled a $20 billion, five-year aid package for these countries. Separately, he also pledged an additional $100 million to the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund.

Abe had expected to reap rewards for his hospitality. He used the gathering, which had been supposedly arranged to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the ties between Japan and ASEAN, as an opportunity to garner regional support for his government's position on China's zone and as a launching pad for his so-called defense policy of "proactive pacifism" in the region.

"Japan and ASEAN agreed to strengthen cooperation to secure freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety," Abe said at a news conference designed to enable him to show off his prize.

And Abe has poked his nose in the South China Sea.

Abe aimed to use the summit to strengthen ties with the Philippines and Vietnam, which are in territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea, and to draw those countries over to Japan's side, the country's top-selling newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, said.

Japan hammered out a deal with the Philippines on providing the latter with 10 patrol boats to improve its coast guard's capabilities.

"By doing so, the (Japanese) prime minister intended to increase pressure on China. Since there were pro-China countries as well, the joint statement avoided direct criticism of China by not naming the country in the text and cited freedom of overflight to indicate joint steps by the countries concerned," the newspaper said.

After taking office last December, Abe chose Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia as the destinations of his first official overseas trips. Within a year, he has toured all 10 ASEAN countries - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - always with one eye on containing China in the region.

The Japanese media saw this joint statement as crowning Abe's year of courting.

While selling Japan's "concern" over China's air defense identification zone hard to ASEAN leaders, Japan dared not admit that the statement targeted China.

In a response to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei's anger at the Japanese prime minister for his malicious slander against China in the international arena, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga claimed that the leaders did not target any specific country.

"The most appropriate wording to be used in the text in light of China's zone declaration was the focal point of contention in the joint statement of the meeting," the Yomiuri Shimbun revealed.

Since taking office, Abe has envisioned a global role for his country.

"In this summit, I would like to discuss relations between Japan and ASEAN in the context of not only our bilateral relations, but also in the context of the international community," he told his ASEAN counterparts.

He succeeded in having his doctrine of proactive pacifism incorporated into the Japan-ASEAN joint statement.

But ASEAN members appear divided on Abe's game of taking a position, wishing to put their eggs in two baskets. After all, China and Japan are the world's second- and third-largest economies.

Still, some Southeast Asian nations, which were invaded or colonized by Japan in World War II, had endorsed Abe's proactive pacifism with caution.

"In our view, it is important that Japan's larger security role is pursued gradually, in a transparent manner and in ways that would strengthen international security, regional order and enhance confidence building," said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Dec 13. "In particular, it must be said that good relations between China and Japan are critical to the future of our region."

On Dec 17, Abe's cabinet approved three documents regarding the guidelines and strategies for Japan's national defense and security under the prime minister's policy of proactive pacifism.

Taking China as one of Japan's potential enemies, the documents highlighted the need for having more defense capabilities to allow Japan to contribute more actively to international stability and prosperity.

Abe has been trying to plant seeds of distrust and even hatred in Southeast Asia, driving a wedge between the region and China. If this is part of his doctrine of proactive pacifism, it will invite confrontation rather than make peace.

The author is China Daily's Tokyo bureau chief. Contact the writer at