Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.07.12

An open letter to China’s defense minister (satire intended)

Japanese editorials were divided over the Sino-U.S. positions at the Shangri-La Dialogue

the Japan Times on Jun 9th, 2023

International Politics/Diplomacy China

Dear Gen. Li Shangfu, minister of defense of the People’s Republic of China, Please excuse my rudeness in writing to your excellency for the first time.

Thank you for your recent attendance at such a hostile environment as the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. International media reported that you and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin only shook hands at the opening dinner without any substantive exchange.

During the conference, you reportedly rebutted the arguments by the U.S. defense secretary, who said that the conflict over Taiwan is “neither imminent nor inevitable. … The United States does not seek a new Cold War,” and “For responsible defense leaders … the right time to talk is now.”

You said that it is the U.S. that “is stirring up conflict by supporting Taiwan, deploying troops in the region and building an alliance.” Your rebuttal was widely reported in the Japanese media.

Moreover, when the U.S. accused a Chinese naval vessel of conducting “unsafe” maneuvers when it approached and forced a U.S. ship to slow down to avoid a collision in the Taiwan Strait, your government strongly criticized Washington and Ottawa for “deliberately provoking risk.” The Chinese counterargument was also shared with Japan’s general public.

That said, editorials in Japan’s major newspapers were divided over the Sino-U.S. dialogue. Many did not even comment on your handshake with Austin, focusing primarily on Japan-U.S.-South Korea cooperation as it pertains to the North Korean issue. Only two editorials of major dailies, namely the liberal Asahi Shimbun and the economic Nikkei Shimbun, discussed China’s relations with the United States in two contrasting ways.

You may prefer the Asahi’s editorial with its statement saying that, “China should not reject the talks out of hand and the U.S. needs to work to create the right environment.” While the Asahi seemed to be taking a balanced approach, the Nikkei’s editorial primarily took issue with China. It claimed that ” If communication over security remains stalled, the risk of unintended conflict will only increase. China should be open to talks at all levels without preconditions.”

You might be puzzled by this. It is simply because the Japanese media failed to comprehend not only the most provocative parts of Austin’s speech but also the reasons why you refused to officially meet with your American counterpart in Singapore, or perhaps in any other place in the foreseeable future.

The Japanese reporters who wrote these articles probably had not carefully read the full text of Austin’s recent speech or statements. In fact, what they reported was nothing new and missed the most important elements of the defense secretary’s remarks. Therefore, I take this opportunity to share with your excellency some of my takeaways from Austin’s recent comments about China and the alliances that the U.S. maintains in this part of the world.

There are four key elements in Austin’s recent speech and remarks: the matching of allied words and deeds, the upgrading of the U.S. military presence in the region, operationalizing the alliance and the U.S.’ doubling down on the perceived China threat.

The last element on doubling down may require some explanation. The phrasal verb “double down” is originally a blackjack term meaning to double a bet after seeing one’s initial cards. In politics, it means “to strengthen one’s commitment to a particular strategy or course of action, typically one that is potentially risky.”

So in a nutshell, as you are well aware, the U.S. has finally begun to substantially strengthen its alliance network in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China. Now you know what the Americans are up to. It is to deny your country’s dream of China becoming a fully independent and dominant power. Therefore, if I were you Gen. Li, I would never agree to a U.S.-China defense ministerial meeting.

Don’t expect Washington to make substantive concessions during dialogue with China. It is only meant to avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict, as Austin honestly stated. So under such politico-military circumstances as was the case in Singapore, no Chinese official should or would risk putting themselves openly on display in front of the public as it could lead to a shameful “loss of face.” So, again, I fully understand why you declined the U.S. request.

Your Excellency, if I had the privilege to make some humble suggestions to your colleagues in Beijing, I would propose the following:

  • Avoid multilateral settings and try to cut a deal with Washington in a quieter bilateral environment so that you would not have to risk losing face.
  • Ignore ministerial contacts because President Xi Jinping can and will likely persuade the 80-year-old American president to agree to China’s terms.

Unlike what Austin said, now is not the right time for the People’s Liberation Army to talk to the Americans; Chinese military power is not strong enough to liberate Taiwan if the U.S. steps in. You must catch up with and outpower the U.S. in the region before you seriously start talking and making deals with the United States.

Oh, I might have said too much because you probably already took these ideas into consideration before you went to Singapore.

Wishing your excellency good health and fortune,

Sincerely yours,

Kuni Miyake