In a predictable manner, big-power diplomacy prevailed at the 15th Asia Security Summit, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. China presented a strong rebuttal to the caution extended by the United States that Beijing risked going behind a "Great Wall of isolation" if it did not heed calls to abide by international law over its contentious claims to the South China Sea. This issue has rippled recurringly across the region ever since Beijing's "nine-dash line map" surfaced in 2009.
Still, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter adopted measured tones, perhaps in deference to the security and economic dialogue being held this week by the two powers at Cabinet level. Aware, also, of the deep suspicions China harbours about the motivations behind the American decision to lift the arms embargo on Vietnam, Mr Carter was at pains to stress that the US was not a claimant state in the maritime dispute. But it was duty-bound to insist on the universal right to freely navigate through these international waters. In contrast, and perhaps in anticipation of the impending ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the Chinese appeared firm and forceful as they complained about alleged Cold War mentalities and outside meddling in the region.
Of course, international forums should not be dominated by big powers. For this reason, it was notable that this year's dialogue saw European nations France and Britain join their trans-Atlantic cousin, Canada, to flag that they too see a matter of vital interest at the heart of the turbulence in South-east Asia - namely, the safeguarding of international rules. France wants European Union navies to coordinate patrols in the cause of freedom of navigation. India, which had kept a low profile in recent meetings, sent its defence minister who also asserted his nation's right to sail unhindered while framing the region as the "Indo-Pacific". Even South Korea, usually reticent to formally take the floor, stepped in to draw attention to the nuclear threats emanating from North Korea, China's only treaty ally. Clearly, stability in this region is being seen as a global concern.
The peace that all seek is within reach if the golden rules of international diplomacy are followed. For example, an objective ruling from The Hague should not be spurned in advance. Given the multiplicity of claims, detached findings ought to be welcomed for the sake of clarity. Next, it would not be honourable to divide and conquer stealthily. Open negotiation and inclusion should be the defining tone of 21st-century diplomacy. Any behind-the-scenes effort to strike bilateral deals that ignore the interests of others would stoke distrust. No nation, big or small, will find lasting security when it becomes a pawn in a big-power game. Finally, key regional issues should not be viewed as a zero-sum, with-me-or-against-me contest.