When the great and the good in the world of Asian strategy get together once a year here to talk about what’s new in their field, it is not often that sparks fly.
But there were some fireworks at the Shangri-la Dialogue on Sunday when the deputy chief of the Chinese Army, Gen. Wang Guanzhong, let loose with some barbed attacks on the United States and its principal ally in Asia, Japan.
Since the conference began on Friday evening, speaker after speaker had criticized China, in more or less veiled fashion, for the aggressive way Beijing is pushing its territorial claims in the East and South China seas.
Wang clearly felt aggrieved; people were ganging up on his government and it was time to hit back.
He accused Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel of “provocative actions and challenges against China” in their earlier speeches and described Mr. Hagel’s speech as “full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation…to create troubles and make provocations.”
What had they done to deserve such opprobrium?
Mr. Abe had complained about the way China has crowded the seas and skies around the disputed Diaoyu islands (which he calls the Senkaku) with naval vessels and fighter jets.
Hagel had accused Beijing of “destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” for example by moving an oil drilling rig last month into waters that Vietnam also claims.
That has led to clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels in which one Vietnamese fishing boat sank last week, and to anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in which four people died.
The United States “firmly opposes any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force” to assert its claims, Hagel said bluntly.
These were strong words. But tensions in the South China Sea and around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are getting dangerously high, and with opposing ships and combat aircraft in close proximity there is a constant risk that a miscalculation might unleash a serious conflict.
Events such as the annual Shangri-la Dialogue are meant to help avert such disasters by encouraging discussion and greater mutual understanding. But Wang’s outburst illustrates a fly in the ointment.
Different countries have different views about which islands belong to whom and for what historical reasons. But they are all – officially – committed to resolving those differences peacefully through negotiations.
The difficulty is that the moment somebody expresses a view with which China does not agree – as Abe and Hagel did – the Chinese accuse them of “provocation.”
That hardly paves the path to negotiation. The Vietnamese Defense minister, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, told the conference on Saturday that since China’s installation of the oil rig in disputed waters a month ago he had telephoned his counterpart and other Chinese leaders asking for a meeting, or the dispatch of a special envoy, or a telephone call or even a letter to enable negotiations on a way out of the crisis.
“China is considering these calls,” he said. He did not appear to expect an answer any time soon.