With China's rise, the challenge for all in Asia is not to try to roll back change but to manage it
Each year, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore provides a platform for Washington to affirm America's strategic commitment to Asia, promote its policies to strengthen United States regional leadership, and push back against China's encroachments. And it gives America's friends and allies in Asia an opportunity to line up in support.
This year, that won't be so easy, either for America or its allies. As usual, the US Secretary of Defence will deliver a major speech when the meeting convenes at the start of next month. But it is far from clear what President Donald Trump's appointee Jim Mattis will have to say, because the new administration does not yet have any clear policy lines on Asia. Nor has it appointed or even nominated any of the senior officials who would be responsible for framing such a policy.
So far the only thing that seems clear is that the Obama-era "Pivot to Asia" slogan is dead. But the evidence suggests that something bigger is happening than just a change in terminology. Despite tough talk during last year's election campaign, and some notably anti-Chinese appointees in the White House, President Trump seems to have no appetite for confronting China. He has stepped back from threats of a trade war, and is seeking cooperation rather than rivalry with Beijing over problems like North Korea.
The issue to watch at this year's meeting is the South China Sea. China's conduct there was the central focus last year. Washington urged Asian countries to stand up to Beijing, and promised robust US support. But that has all fallen rather flat since then. China has ignored The Hague-based Law of the Sea Arbitral Tribunal's adverse findings, America has failed to follow through with robust freedom of navigation operations, and Asean countries have to varying degrees performed pivots of their own - towards China.
The signs so far suggest that Mr Trump's team is now prepared quietly to let the issue drop. Washington has reportedly refused to authorise further freedom of navigation operations, and criticisms of China's position on the South China Sea have been notably absent from official statements since Mr Trump took office.
That might be smart, because the way things have turned out, the issue has not played to America's advantage. General Mattis would be foolish to repeat his predecessor's mistakes and promise tougher pushback against China than Washington is willing or able to deliver.
But, at the same time, tacitly accepting Beijing's fait accompli in the South China Sea would leave a big question mark over Washington's longer-term objectives and strategies in Asia. US allies would have to ask how seriously committed the Trump administration is to preserving the US regional strategic primacy on which their security depends.
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This question is no doubt weighing on the mind of Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as he prepares to deliver the keynote opening speech at Shangri-La this year. Mr Turnbull is a thoughtful man who has pondered deeply on the significance of China's rise for Asia's future and America's role in it. But since becoming prime minister 18 months ago, he has not made any major speeches on the issue. In passing remarks he has stuck to safe ground, expressing complete confidence that US strategic leadership in Asia will last forever.
We will all benefit if America can play a major role in the new order, but that role will be different from the one it has played hitherto. We in Asia need to help Americans reimagine a new role for themselves which serves the wider regional interest, and which they are able and willing to sustain.
The Shangri-La speech thus offers an important opportunity for Mr Turnbull, and a daunting challenge. He can establish himself as a real regional thought-leader by using the opportunity offered by Asia's premier strategic gathering to set out at length his carefully considered views on the radical transformation of Asia's strategic order being driven by the rise of China.
Or he can stick to platitudes, and pretend that nothing has changed. That is what his predecessors in Australia have done, and it is mostly what other regional leaders in Asia have done too. They have been understandably nervous that to speak out more frankly would anger America, unsettle their own citizens, and encourage China. But by failing to engage in a serious and honest debate about the region's tectonic strategic shifts, Asian leaders have prevented any proactive response.
Now it is more important than ever to speak out frankly about what is happening in Asia, as the old US-led status quo looks less and less sustainable. Former US president Barack Obama's pivot has plainly failed, and the new administration seems incapable of formulating a workable alternative, and perhaps not really interested in trying. The reality is that to the extent that he can disengage himself from the huge domestic crises engulfing his presidency, Mr Trump really is all about "America First".
So Mr Turnbull should speak his mind in Singapore next week. That would not mean repudiating a continuing strong US role in Asia, or Canberra's close bilateral alliance with Washington. But it would mean saying out loud and quite plainly what everyone already knows.
First, China's rise is a massive and permanent shift in the distribution of wealth and power in Asia, and none of China's political or economic challenges, serious though they are, will change that.
Second, this shift in power must change the way Asia works strategically. The old order based on uncontested US primacy has already gone. A new order is emerging in which China does and will play a bigger leadership role. So will other Asian countries as their power grows.
Third, while the old US-led order served Asia well, we must look to the future. The challenge for all of us in Asia is not to try to prevent or roll back strategic change, but to manage it. We need to manage the transition to a new order peacefully, and ensure that as it emerges, the new order effectively protects the key interests of all of us.
And finally, we will all benefit if America can play a major role in the new order, but that role will be different from the one it has played hitherto. We in Asia need to help Americans reimagine a new role for themselves which serves the wider regional interest, and which they are able and willing to sustain. Otherwise we may find that America simply withdraws. Indeed that might be already happening. So there is no time to waste.
If Mr Turnbull could bring himself to say something like that, this year's Shangri-La really would be historic.
The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'Shangri-La Dialogue should address Asia's new strategic order'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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