BY INVITATION

Can Asia outwit Sun Tzu's strategy?

The United States, Japan and China are going eyeball to eyeball at sea, in the air and at the conference table.

ON MAY 30, top defence officials in the Asia-Pacific region gathered in Singapore to participate in the three-day annual Shangri-La security dialogue.

On the first day, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said "Japan will spare no effort to make regional stability, peace, and prosperity into something rock solid", and pledged his commitment to the security of the countries in the region.

On the next day, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that the US had more peacetime military engagement in the Asia-Pacific than ever before, and declared that US rebalance towards Asia was "not a goal, not a promise, or a vision" but "a reality".

In the face of concerted pressure, Chinese Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, who led the Chinese delegation, was on the defensive. He accused Japan and the US of provocation and intimidation, and said they had coordinated their attacks.

Making commitments

IN LATE April, US President Barack Obama made a seven-day trip to Asia, visiting Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The message was clear: The US was truly rebalancing towards Asia, and his country's commitment to the security of its allies and friends was unwavering.

In Tokyo, Mr Obama stated that US treaty commitment to Japan's security was "absolute" and said that the US would defend all territories under Japan's administration "including the Senkaku Islands". Such statements have been made by US officials before, but it was the first time a US president had done so.

Just before Mr Obama arrived in Manila, the US and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. The pact gave US forces access to the Philippines on a rotational basis. It also allowed the US to position and store defence equipment, supplies and material. For all practical purposes, US forces are now going back to the Philippines.

On May 15, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in a televised press conference that he would seek to reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to make it possible for his country to start exercising the right of collective self-defence. If this is achieved, Japan's Self-Defence Forces would be able to defend not only Japan but its allies as well.

One of Mr Abe's advisers has said that Japan will soon start working closely with countries such as Australia, the Philippines and India on security matters. With the new right of collective self-defence, Japan will be able to participate in joint military training and exercises, joint patrol activities, intelligence-sharing operations and capacity-building activities.

In fact, Japan has already decided to provide 10 new patrol boats to the Philippine coast guard and three to Indonesia. Similar assistance to Vietnam is under consideration.

The Japanese government has also decided to lift a ban on arms export and international joint arms development. Based on this policy change, Japan and Australia are currently talking about the possible transfer of submarine technologies to help fulfil the latter's defence requirements.

Testing commitments

THE words are good and the opportunities are there. But the question is: Will the US and Japan act upon them?

On May 2, just three days after Mr Obama left Asia, China deployed a deep-water oil drilling rig near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam claimed that this area was inside its exclusive economic zone and sent patrol boats in protest. The two sides got into a ramming contest as a result.

Then, on May 26, a Chinese fishing ship allegedly rammed and capsized a Vietnamese fishing boat with 10 fishermen on board near the oil rig.

China also took a bold action in the East China Sea. On May 24, two Chinese Su-27 fighters flew as close as 30m to 50m to Japanese OP-3C and YS-11EB intelligence-gathering aircraft. China justified its action by claiming that the Japanese aircraft had entered its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and spied on a Sino-Russian joint naval exercise.

However, the ADIZ is not legally binding, and observing other countries' military exercises in high seas is a widely accepted practice.

The US, Japan and other countries in the region denounced the Chinese actions. But they have not taken any other measures. Chinese leaders have succeeded in showing that despite the verbal commitments, there is not much the US and Japan can do at sea or in the air.

During his Asia visit, Mr Obama repeatedly said that the US goal was not to counter or contain China.

Mr Abe's position is not very strong, either. While he pushes ahead with his security agenda, his coalition partner, the New Komeito party, does not provide full-fledged support. The Buddhist party complains that the right of collective self-defence is not about defending Japan but about defending somebody else.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Nikkei and TV Tokyo last month, 68 per cent of the respondents support legal amendments needed to better deal with China's peacetime coercive actions against Japan. But only 37 per cent supported the collective self-defence idea, and 47 per cent disapproved.

Isolationist sentiment remains quite powerful in Japan despite Mr Abe's effort to make Japan a bit more internationalist.

Not all Japan's neighbours are likely to welcome these efforts. Some countries remember how "proactive" Japan was during the Pacific War. Their negative response might further discourage Japan from acting. It is, therefore, not clear yet whether Japan can play a meaningful role in the security in the region, even if the Constitution is revised.

China seems to be using Sun Tzu's strategy of winning without fighting, combined with salami- slicing tactics. The latter involve constructing obscure structures on small islands and rocks, having small vessels occasionally step into disputed territory and deploying of mobile oil rigs in disputed waters temporarily. These actions are too insignificant to become casus belli for military conflict. Cumulatively however, they could pave the way for the acquisition of new territories, natural resources and influence.

Asia has become a vibrant area of growth, and safe shipping through the South China Sea is key to continued prosperity. Sun Tzu's strategy is only good as far as it goes. We must not forget that "win-win" is a better strategy than "winning without fighting".

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (Grips) in Tokyo, where he is director of the Security and International Studies Programme. He is the author of North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008.