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This Could All Go Horribly Wrong
War of Words in Asia Reaches Fever Pitch

Shangri-la was a mythical vale of beauty and peace—and, incidentally, FDR’s original name for the presidential retreat in Pennsylvania Maryland (renamed Camp David by Dwight Eisenhower for his young grandson).

But this year’s Shangri-la Dialogue conference in Singapore was the opposite of peaceful. Tough speeches by U.S. and Japanese leaders were followed by a harsh rebuttal from China: a full display of the tensions that threaten to turn East Asia into a permanent crisis zone. Sam Roggeveen in the Nikkei Asian Review writes:

Veterans of the annual summit, convened by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, agreed they had never seen anything like it. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened the conference with a speech that, although it barely mentioned China, was brimming with implied criticism of Beijing’s assertiveness in South China Sea territorial disputes. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was more blunt, criticizing China by name for its “destabilizing and unilateral” action and promising that America “would not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged.

The Chinese did not take these speeches lightly. The People’s Daily:

“The speeches made by Mr Abe and Mr Hagel gave me the impression that they were coordinated with each other, they supported each other, they encouraged each other and they took the advantage of speaking first at the Shangri-La Dialogue and staged provocations and challenges against China,” Wang told defense and military representatives and scholars from 27 countries.

For domestic Chinese consumption, a certain Major General Zhu Chengu went further, predicting that the United States was all talk and no bite, and would not stand up for its allies:

“As U.S. power declines, Washington needs to rely on its allies in order to reach its goal of containing China’s development,” he told the TV station. “But whether it will get involved or use military intervention once there is a territorial dispute involving China and its neighbors, that is another issue,” he added.

He said that this depended on the U.S. ability to project power, citing Ukraine as an example.

He said, “we can see from the situation in Ukraine this kind of ED” –which he explained in Chinese was a military abbreviation for something that may have meant “extended deployment” – “has become the male type of ED problem – erectile dysfunction.”

Keep in mind that these kinds of public kerfuffles are unusual in Asian diplomacy, where things are usually kept polite and low-key.

The scariest possibility raised by this conference is that China’s leadership has gravely underestimated both Japan and the United States, thinking both countries less resolute than they are. China believes they will back down under pressure, and this belief is causing the government to provoke further crises in order to show them for the paper tigers that they are. If the U.S.-Japanese alliance does not in fact yield, the Chinese government could face an impossible choice: major, possibly legitimacy-destroying, loss of face at home, or military confrontation.

An only slightly less frightening possibility is that China actually knows Americans leaders better than they know themselves. If the United States does back down, its alliance network in Asia could fall apart.

This is a very dangerous time indeed.

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  • ShadrachSmith

    From those wonderful voters who brought us President Obama. Sometimes I despair for the future, OTOH I enjoyed the golden age of the greatest nation in history, so I’ve got that going for me.

  • Selim Tavlla

    Just to nitpick a bit, Camp David is located in Maryland and not Pennsylvania. Close to the MD-PA border though…

  • rheddles

    It’s like it’s 100 years ago on the other side of the globe. Somebody makes a miscalculation and it’s an unpleasant time for everyone. But the Chinese probably won’t make that mistake.

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