China’s Summit Diplomacy and the Geopolitics of the “Indo-Pacific” Region

Politics Economy

A Month of Asian Summitry

October was a busy month for top-level diplomacy in Asia. Bali was the site of the October 7–8 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and of the October 8 meeting of leaders from the countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. These APEC and TPP meetings were followed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Brunei (October 9–10), which was accompanied by a round of related meetings, including ASEAN-Japan, ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, and South Korea), and East Asia summits.

The outcome of all this summitry was more or less as expected. The leaders at the APEC summit confirmed their intention of creating a “Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.” But the TPP summit ended up not producing the hoped-for “broad” agreement on the proposed comprehensive trade pact. This was presumably due in part to the absence of US President Barack Obama, who had to stay in Washington because of the government shutdown. Meanwhile, the East Asia Summit participants expressed their support for the talks aimed at creating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership centered on ASEAN. They also “welcomed” the progress in dealing with the territorial issues in the South China Sea, including consultations between ASEAN and China on their proposed Code of Conduct for this sea, and they stressed the importance they attached to implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.(*1)

Before and after these October meetings, China’s top leaders undertook a lively round of bilateral summits. On October 2, President Xi Jinping met in Jakarta with Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the two agreed to step up their countries’ military cooperation. On October 4, Xi met in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak; here again the two sides agreed on strengthening cooperation in the military and other fields. From October 13 to 15, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Vietnam, where he and his hosts agreed to set up a working group to discuss joint development activities in the South China Sea. And on October 23, Li and visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a bilateral border defense cooperation agreement in Beijing.

Seeing this energetic summitry, various media commentators have suggested that China’s geopolitical relationships with India and Southeast Asia are changing. But it is premature to draw such a conclusion. As long as China keeps trying to change the status quo by force through high-handed use of its great-power status, its neighbors will continue their moves aimed at countering its ambitions.

Moves in Response to China’s Ambitions

Vietnam, for example, is working jointly with Russia on construction of facilities in Cam Ranh Bay to provide supplies and maintenance for foreign naval vessels; it has also purchased a submarine from Russia and decided on joint construction of a submarine base. Also, at the Japan-Vietnam summit held on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Bali this October, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang agreed to promote bilateral cooperation in the field of maritime security. Indonesia, meanwhile, has been setting up a submarine base in Palu on the island of Sulawesi, a strategic location on the sea lane linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans; the new facility is to start operating late this year. It currently has only two submarines but intends to increase the number to 10 or more by 2024, and it is also planning to acquire eight attack helicopters from the United States. India obtained a Russian-built nuclear submarine in 2012; in August this year it launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier, and this month (November 2013) it will receive delivery of a Russian-built carrier. Prime Minister Singh visited Moscow in the latter part of October and met with President Vladimir Putin; the two leaders agreed to boost their cooperation in the military field, including joint development of a next-generation fighter plane.

I would also note that President Obama’s last-minute cancellation of his October trip to Southeast Asia does not mean that the United States has changed its strategy of emphasizing Asia. As part of the global “rebalancing” of its forces, the United States is planning to expand its military presence in Asia. By 2020 it aims to shift the allocation of its naval forces, which are currently split about 50/50 between the Pacific and the Atlantic, to a 60/40 split weighted toward the Pacific. It will regularly station six aircraft carriers in the Pacific, along with littoral combat ships with antisubmarine capabilities, and it intends to boost its presence with additional armaments, such as attack submarines, fifth-generation fighter aircraft, and advanced cruise missiles. The US forces are also stepping up their joint exercises with Asia-Pacific partners and port calls by US naval vessels to nations around the region.

Japan, meanwhile, is supporting the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam in strengthening their maritime safety capabilities with assistance including the provision of patrol boats. These moves are being undertaken as part of the Japanese government’s “strategic use of official development assistance,” which was mentioned explicitly in last year’s joint statement of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee. In other words, Japan’s initiatives are closely linked to the US rebalancing of forces.

We need to take the above developments into account as we seek to fathom changes in the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific—or the Indo-Pacific, to use a term that has recently been gaining currency. In this light, China’s recent flurry of summitry is probably best seen as a stopgap or as a form of damage control to deal with the aftermath of its own high-handed behavior since 2008.

Tokyo and Washington Aim for Uniform Standards on Nuclear Plant Safety

As reported in the daily Nikkei on October 31, the Japanese and US governments are planning to hold a meeting in the early part of November to work on the establishment of uniform standards for assessment of the risk of nuclear power plant accidents. The two countries have a bilateral Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, which has a 30-year term ending in 2018. With this time limit in mind, and in consideration of the lessons of the Fukushima accident, over the coming five years Tokyo and Washington will seek to adopt numerical standards for assessing the risks relating to nuclear power plant accidents and to share relevant data. One issue is the use of “probabilistic risk assessment,” which the United States has been applying since 1995. If the two sides are able to harmonize their approaches to assessment, Japan is expected to revise its regulatory standards (set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in July this year) accordingly.

I have previously noted in this column that the Nuclear Regulatory Authority is effectively exercising a decisive say in Japan’s energy policy and that the Japanese government should consult its international partners in setting safety standards, as this is not a Japanese but a global issue. I will not repeat my arguments here, but I would like to make an additional point in this connection. The law establishing the NRA charges it with “developing and implementing measures necessary for ensuring safety in the use of nuclear energy based on established international criteria.” It seems to me that the probabilistic risk assessment noted above is an “international criterion” that Japan should adopt not five years from now but sooner. In any case, the US government seems to have become seriously concerned about the global impact of the decisions adopted by Japan’s NRA. The new collaborative undertaking to set safety standards for nuclear plants strikes me as a highly welcome development.

(Originally written in Japanese on November 12, 2013.)

diplomacy United States China India Russia TPP APEC ASEAN Asia-Pacific energy South China Sea Vietnam Indonesia RCEP nuclear energy Indo-Pacific