He’s the “biggest troublemaker in Asia.” That was the assessment of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by China’s Ambassador to the African Union Xie Xiaoyan, as the Japanese leader concluded a three-nation trip to Africa. In recent years, China has poured investment into Africa, and Xie on Jan. 15 poured scorn on Abe’s diplomatic efforts in the region, labeling it “China containment.” Abe’s tour of Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Ethiopia came with promises of $320 million in aid for the African continent.
Last month, Japan’s hawkish Prime Minister earned international condemnation when he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where veneration of Japanese war dead includes the honoring of notorious war criminals. Abe has also presided over a statistically small but geopolitically significant increase in Japan’s defense budget, in part to secure islands in the East China Sea that Tokyo administers but to which Beijing lays claim. In 2012, before Abe became PM for the second time, he said he wanted to review the Japanese government’s 1993 apology for forcing Asian women to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
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During his press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where Abe had just visited, Xie held aloft photos of Chinese he said had been massacred by Japanese troops. “[Abe] has worked hard to portray China as a threat, aiming to sow discord, raising regional tensions and so creating a convenient excuse for the resurrection of Japanese militarism,” said the Chinese envoy. In recent months, Abe has traveled across the developing world, which Chinese critics have taken as a challenge to Beijing’s own charm offensive.
But even as China has used its diplomatic corps to assail Japan’s globetrotting, nationalist leader, the Chinese military has also enlarged its own footprint — a worrisome development for Asian neighbors embroiled in territorial conflicts with Beijing. On Jan. 15, the Chinese Defense Ministry confirmed a test flight earlier this month of a new hypersonic missile delivery vehicle that could carry nuclear warheads at landmark velocity. The Chinese military has enjoyed years of double-digit budget hikes and is rapidly expanding its arsenal. (This type of hypersonic technology is being developed by only a few nations.) “The Asia Pacific is fast becoming a powder keg,” read a joint statement from three members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, in response to reports of China’s hypersonic flight trial. “Allowing nations that do not share our respect for free and open avenues of commerce to gain a strategic advantage over the United States and her allies only brings us closer to lighting the fuse.”
(MORE: Japanese Diplomat Warns China to Not Become Asia’s ‘Voldemort’)
Meanwhile, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, gave more details on Jan. 15 of the near accident in the South China Sea last month between an American guided missile cruiser and a Chinese navy vessel sailing not far from Beijing’s first aircraft carrier, which was making its debut in the vast waterway. The Americans allege that the Chinese warship came within around 500 m of the USS Cowpens on Dec. 5. The American vessel had to suddenly change course to avert a crash, claimed Locklear. Although the ships were in international waters, China has over the past couple years more assertively claimed most of the South China Sea as its own.
The Philippines, one of the Southeast Asian nations most at loggerheads with China over contested waters, last year accepted a Japanese promise to modernize the Philippine coastguard. Manila is also considering a plan to welcome back U.S. troops to the Philippines, after American bases there were closed due to popular opposition in the early 1990s. “The Chinese are wasting an opportunity to show us that it is a benevolent superpower,” says Clarita Carlos, a former president of the National Defense College of the Philippines. Now, with the Chinese outcry over Abe’s three-nation tour, the war of words has extended to the far-off continent of Africa.