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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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US Strategy in Asia

Jun. 1, 2015

There were tense moments at last weekend’s Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore. A conference designed to defuse tensions only highlighted how deep they are. Newsroom Tokyo explores where US-China relations are headed - and what that means for Japan. As tension builds in the South China Sea, NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden sits down with Kurt Campbell, a former US assistant secretary of state. She asks him about the United States’ strategy in Asia and the future of its alliance with Japan.

Kurt Campbell was US Assistant Secretary of State for nearly 4 years. He oversaw President Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific policy and now runs a think-tank, but continues to advise the government.

Doden: What do you think is the motive behind China’s recent activities with regards to the South China Sea?

Campbell: They are a rising country, they want to play a larger role. I think they believe that they have the ability to manoeuver in Asia in such a way that does not hurt their interests. I think on this front, they have miscalculated, because I believe ultimately the steps that others will take to respond to Chinese steps are likely to be antithetical to Beijing’s larger interests.

Doden: Defense Secretary Carter even pointed out the possible risk of miscalculation or even conflicts. Is that likely, do you think, or possible?

Campbell: I do think it’s possible. Likely and possible - both. I think we will see more operations of US forces in the South China Sea. I think the risks of a bumping, or a miscalculation, or an accident, are very real.

Doden: A recent announcement shows there are signs that military weapons have been detected on the islands.

Campbell: Those are not as concerning. They look like they were artillery pieces, but it’s the precedent, and it could lead to other kinds of military systems - fighter jets, missiles. These are the kinds of things that would be escalatory and would send the message in Asia that would be deeply antithetical to our interests.

Doden: Some observers say that perhaps this apparent escalation of tension might be a calculated one, given the visit of Mr Xi Jinping to Washington this coming fall. What would you say?

Campbell: In US-China diplomacy, it’s a constant search for leverage. China will want a good visit. So he will want to avoid steps or provocations that could stir unease among the American people.

Doden: What is the key message that Washington needs to send to China now?

Campbell: Be careful. Think carefully about the long term. Recognize that the United States wants a good relationship with China, we’re not seeking to contain you, to undermine you. But at the same time, we are also committed to certain principles and certain approaches to the maintenance of peace and stability.

Doden: In your capacity there must be things that you can disclose, and things that you cannot disclose, but have you been given any reactions or responses from Beijing as to what their next step might be?

Campbell: That’s a great question. Let me just say when I was in government, only a few years ago, you could have a conversation with an interlocutor in the state council, in the foreign ministry, around the leader, and have a sense of what decision-making was like. Today, most of the big decisions are made by President Xi himself, and he’s relying on a remarkably narrow group of advisers. As a consequence, we actually don’t know very much about how real decisions are taken in Beijing.

Japan and the United States revised their defense cooperation guidelines in April for the first time in 18 years. They agreed to coordinate the defense of remote islands, with an eye on China’s increasing maritime activities. The revised guidelines removed any geographical constraints and US officials expressed hope that the SDF would take part in future surveillance activities in the South China Sea. China reacted sharply. Beijing said the Japan-US alliance must not harm the interests of third countries, and must work to secure the region's peace and stability.

Doden: What is the significance of the revision of the guidelines between Japan and the US to promote further defense cooperation?

Campbell: It’s remarkably significant, it has not received enough attention. It’s one of the most important documents and steps in US-Japan relations for decades. This is a substantial step forward that will allow the US and Japan to operate with greater interoperability and shared purpose when we face a common challenge together.

Doden: Domestically, the general public seems to think that the government, or the leadership, need to explain more. There is, as you say, little sense that this can be a turning point in terms of Japan’s history of security.

Campbell: I agree with that. The fact is that Japan has to do more to explain and to convince its regional partners about the inherent positive nature of the approach that they’re taking.

Doden: With regards to the South China Sea, some say that it is the US’ understanding that Japan might take part in, for example, monitoring activities in the South China Sea.

Campbell: I think the question will be, will other countries participate? Australia has been mentioned, and others. I would say that the unique contributions that Japan makes, and will continue to make, will largely not be in the military arena. Japan offers a role as an extraordinarily impressive, and dignified, peaceful nation, almost pacifist, and that’s an important and critical contribution to how Asia confronts change and challenges. I think the United States is prepared to see Japan play a larger role on the defense side, but only if it’s really embedded in a larger renaissance, if you will, of US-Japan relations that include greater people to people in education exchanges and much more focus on diplomacy going forward. Ultimately I trust Japan, and I trust the processes by which it makes decisions about how it engages on the international stage.

Doden joins Newsroom Tokyo presenters Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu to analyse progress at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Shibuya: Aiko, you attend the Shangri-La Dialogue every year and last Friday you told us there was unprecedented tension this year. How did it play out?

Doden: The Dialogue attracted a record number of participants - over 5000 people including the media - and about 500 official delegates took part, largely because of the intense interest in the South China Sea. Headlines in the papers, like “America and China are at odds over the South China Sea” or “China rejects US demands” obviously gave the impression that tensions were building. But the rhetoric was subdued compared to last year, when the Chinese held press conferences every time China became the issue, to officially refute any allegations. The rhetoric may have been toned down, but still, the interest is likely to persist because it became even more evident at the conference this year that the issue was not going to go away anytime soon.

Beppu: In your interview with Dr Campbell, what did you understand was the US hope, or position, to try to tackle this issue?

Doden: That is the very challenge because as you know, there is no multilateral collective security arrangement within Southeast Asia, given the history and the differences in the political systems. Dr Campbell admitted that while the US was “in pretty good shape in North East Asia”, it needs to find more opportunities to support business, strategic and other engagements across Southeast Asia to make clear that the US is an enduring power in Asia going forward. The US is concerned that security considerations in the region can inhibit development and trade in the region. The region is a vibrant market of 600 million people, worth more than $2 trillion, and leaders in Washington know it’s in their interest to keep the region stable.

Beppu: What do you think is needed now to prevent any sort of escalation of tensions?

Doden: The only hope may be diplomacy. There’s an assumption that China wants to avoid confrontation, and any setback in US-China relations, with plans for President Xi Jinping to visit the US in September. As Dr Campbell said, China wants a good visit. And so does the US, because it does not want to undermine the overall positive trend in bilateral relations. Dr. Campbell said the US wants to see Japan step up its diplomacy on security issues directly with countries in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. The US position is that they wish to be seen to be strengthening the external engagement, rather than pursuing a containment strategy. This is where the US hopes Japan would come on board and play a role. As for the Shangri-La Dialogue, as many as 67 bilateral ministerial meetings took place on the sidelines of the conference, which goes to demonstrate that there is an impetus on the part of all stakeholders to diffuse tensions. They know it’s in everyone’s interest.