Asian Insider Shangri-La Dialogue edition: What you need to know from the forum

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.


Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set the stage for the Shangri-La Dialogue in a keynote address that laid out the core concerns of countries like Singapore as they watched the US-China relationship deteriorate.

It’s all about trust:  The Singaporean leader said the fundamental problem between the US and China is a lack of strategic trust, and that makes compromise or peaceful accommodation difficult.

"If both sides treat their trade dispute purely on its own merits, I have no doubt their trade negotiators will be able to resolve it. But if either side uses trade rules to keep the other down, or one side comes to the conclusion that the other is trying to do this, then the dispute will not be resolved, and the consequences will be far graver than a loss of GDP.”

Not another Cold War: While noting that a face-off between the two powers would be disastrous, he also stressed that it would be wrong to assume that it would look like the Cold War. He said unlike Russia and the US, the US and China do not have an irreconcilable ideological divide. China is also much more connected to the world than the Soviet bloc. And while the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, neither China nor the US are able to take down each other.

"All of the US' allies in Asia, including Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Australia, as well as many of its friends and partners, including Singapore, have China as their largest trading partner. They are all allies of the US, friends of the US, but their largest trading partner is China. They all hope that the US and China will resolve their differences. They want to be friends with both: to nurture security and economic ties with the US, as they grow their business links with China."

Go deeper:

Fundamental problem between US and China is 'mutual lack of strategic trust', says Lee Hsien Loong

Worrying trend of hardening attitudes surfacing in Sino-US relations, says PM Lee

South-east Asia 'no stranger to great game of nations’


On Saturday, it was Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s turn on the stage and he used his address to emphasise US commitment to the region. At a time when some have begun to question America’s willingness to engage overseas, the top Pentagon official appeared to try to rebuff attempts by Beijing to portray the US as an outside power provoking disquiet.

US is investing: “I am here to affirm the US' enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and to the values that keep it secure and prosperous, free and open...The Indo-Pacific is our priority theatre. We are where we belong."

"Our shared geography has spurred the integration and linkage of our economies: America's annual two-way trade here is US$2.3 trillion (S$3.2 trillion), and US foreign direct investment is US$1.3 trillion, more than China's, Japan's and South Korea's combined.”

But it also wants allies to invest:  He said countries in the region need to invest in their own defence to strengthen deterrence and build capacity to play a part in upholding a rules-based international order. A report released in tandem with the speech said the US wants to build a network of trilateral partnerships and will continue to support multilateral institutions like Asean as part of its strategy to achieve the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“We are investing in the region. We are investing in you, and with you. And we need you to invest further in yourselves."

What he said about the US-China relationship: "Competition does not mean conflict. Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules. China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region, too.”

“I pick up the newspaper and (I see) talks about the trade war, I haven’t seen a trade war. There are trade negotiations that are ongoing. We’re building relations with the Chinese military. I’d be hesitant to talk about a face-off.”

Go deeper:

Indo-Pacific is priority theatre for US, says Shanahan

States that erode rules-based order a threat to region, says US

US urges allies to invest in their own defence

Reactions: Defence chief's remarks signal aim to retain influence: Experts

Analysis: US to China: Velvet glove or knuckle duster, you choose


Chinese Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, who took to the stage this morning, offered China’s strategic vision in the region, pushing back on US claims that Beijing seeks to be a hegemonic power. 

China seeks peaceful development: “China shall follow the path of peaceful development, which is a solemn commitment to the people of China and the world... Over the past 70 years since the founding of the PRC, China has never provoked a war or conflict, nor has it ever invaded another country or taken an inch of land from others. In the future, no matter how strong it becomes, China shall never threaten anyone, seek hegemony or establish spheres of influence.”

China’s approach to defence: “China develops its military entirely for self-defense. The purpose is to defend the country and provide the people with a peaceful working environment, and ensure that our people are free from the disasters of war and enjoy a better life. We have never bullied or preyed on others, and we shall not let others bully or prey on us either.”

What he said about the US-China relationship: “No country should ever expect China to allow its sovereignty, security and development interests to be infringed upon. As for the recent trade friction started by the US, if the US wants to talk, we will keep the door open. If they want a fight, we will fight till the end.”

“Despite all the ups and downs, China-US relationship has been steadily growing in the past 40 years. The most valuable lesson we have learned from the four-decade-long relationship is that cooperation benefits the two sides while confrontation hurts both. Looking forward, the two countries should follow the consensus by the two heads of state and promote a China-US relationship featuring coordination, cooperation and stability.”

Go deeper:

China does not want to vie for No. 1 position: Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe

Chinese Defence Minister Wei says China ready to fight US on trade but door open for talk


The acceptance of US and China dominance will be diminished if their policies or progress is perceived to be lopsided against the national interests of other countries or the collective good, said Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Disturbances in the South China Sea, the movement of Rohingyas in the region as well as non-traditional security threats such as maritime and cyber-security risks pose the biggest challenges to the region, said Malaysia's Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu

Britain's decision to leave the European Union (EU) is eroding its own influence in the world without hurting the bloc's ability to wield global power, according to the EU's top diplomat.

That’s a wrap for this edition. Thanks for reading.  And head to our special website on the Shangri-La Dialogue for more reports and analyses.