BEIJING/HONG KONG - A major regional security conference is shaping up as a face-off between Asia's two biggest powers, as Japan sends its hawkish prime minister and China dispatches a feisty diplomat instead of the usual brass to counter Tokyo's more assertive message.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in 2012 promising to bolster the role of the nation's military, will deliver the keynote address at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore at the end of the month.
Beijing is sending Fu Ying, a tough and articulate former deputy foreign minister now serving as chairwoman of the Chinese parliament's foreign affairs committee, who is expected to make the case that it is Japan, not an increasingly powerful China, which threatens regional security.
Sino-Japanese tensions over a string of Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing spiked two years, ago shortly before Abe took office.
Relations were further strained when Abe last December visited Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese World War Two leaders convicted by an Allied tribunal as war criminals are honoured along with millions of war dead.
"We understand that the Chinese are keen to continue participating and will be sending a strong delegation, and Fu Ying's appearance reflects that," said Tim Huxley, Singapore-based executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (Asia), which organises the event.
"Our impression is that Prime Minister Abe's speech will stimulate a lot of interest, not least in China, and understandably they want to be in a position to respond swiftly and appropriately," Huxley said.
China's foreign ministry said it was unable to confirm Fu's attendance.
China has yet to confirm who will head the delegation from the People's Liberation Army, Huxley said. China's defence ministry did not respond to request for comment.
A source familiar with China's foreign policy, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Fu was a good choice to go and spar with Abe. "She is well-versed in putting across China's position to an international audience," said the source.
A polished English-speaker - still a rarity among senior Chinese officials - Fu is no stranger to taking on Japan.
Fu attended the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, where she criticised Japan for what she said was its"denial" of its crimes during World War Two. "She can be very charming but she can also be very tough,"said a diplomatic source in Beijing. "She will give a robust response to anything Abe says."