Beijing's narrative of tranquillity in the South China Sea comes amid increased militarisation of the strategic waterway and rising tensions with the United States
In the days immediately after attending the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue one year ago, retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) Major-General Yao Yunzhu, from China's Academy of Military Sciences, offered her perspective on the summit.
Lamenting a lack of security infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific, Maj-Gen Yao's key message was that China's military, in its engagement on the international stage, must "break through the discourse barrier" in the face of growing criticism from the West.
In the interview published by China's popular journal, World Affairs, she also demanded China's participation in the dialogue on a similar footing with the United States, traditionally represented by its Secretary of Defence.
A well-respected expert on Sino-US relations, Maj-Gen Yao achieved something of a celebrity status over the course of her participation in six Shangri-La Dialogues. She impressed delegates with her skill in crafting ingenious lines of questioning and concocting acerbic - sometimes humorous - rebuttals, usually aimed squarely at senior US officials at the summit.
Her lively engagement with the Shangri-La Dialogue, however, perhaps belied an underlying frustration: that China's ability to shape international discourse was still not up to scratch and that the military needed to up its game.
It seems that her message got through. This weekend, the Defence Minister of China, General Wei Fenghe, will lead the PLA's delegation and speak in a solo plenary session on the second day of the summit, on an equal footing with the US Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan.
Only once before in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the dialogue, did China's then Defence Minister Liang Guanglie lead the PLA delegation. Since then, a PLA deputy chief of the joint staff has led China's delegation. In the last two years, Beijing has reverted to sending much lower-ranking representatives, amid deteriorating relations between China and the US.
China's heavyweight military delegation this year is comprised not only of experts in international military cooperation and defence relations. It also includes two very senior officers with leadership experience in China's southern theatre command, the military region encompassing the South China Sea.
The summit this year is also special because Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will deliver the keynote address. He will have an opportunity to reflect on Singapore's achievements in its bicentennial year, having navigated through its turbulent post-colonial phase of development. He will also warn of the dangers of great power competition characterising the China-US relationship under Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump.
The discourse challenge Maj-Gen Yao has described predates the Trump administration. In 2014, the PLA faced a major hurdle at the Shangri-La Dialogue. A few hundred kilometres away from Singapore, in the heart of the disputed waters of the South China Sea, an astounding feat of maritime engineering and construction was underway.
A fleet of state-of-the-art Chinese dredging vessels had consumed and regurgitated a number of coral atolls in the Spratly islands, which were then capped with tonnes of concrete. These artificial islands were rapidly transforming into PLA air and naval bases.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's opening address that year was an irritant for China, especially his thinly veiled criticism of China's actions.
But subsequent accusations by then US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel regarding China's unilateral coercive actions in the South China Sea were apparently the last straw for the PLA's delegation leader, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, who departed from his script and accused the US of colluding with allies to intentionally target China.
Gen Wei and his team will be well-prepared for this summit, in particular to tackle questions on the South China Sea.
China's narrative has consisted of three elements:
Firstly, an insistence that owing to cool-headedness, particularly among Asean members, and strategic composure by Beijing, the waters of the South China Sea have remained calm and tranquil.
The second element in China's narrative is to stress the dual utility of its new islands in the Spratlys and China's provision of public goods such as navigational aids and rescue services, helping to protect the sea lanes that transect the South China Sea.
The third prong of Beijing's discourse is to emphasise the PLA's burgeoning efforts in "non-traditional" security cooperation and in encouraging confidence-building measures, while avoiding discussion of bilateral flashpoints.
Contrary to Beijing's narrative of the tranquillity of the South China Sea, however, this sea-space - vital to Asia's continued growth - has witnessed increased militarisation.
Over the last two years, US allies have closed ranks with the US Navy, deploying significant naval power to the region. Illustrating this, France's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, is currently berthed at Changi Naval Base.
The United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and France have all dispatched naval vessels to conduct manoeuvres and exercises in the international waters of the South China Sea, all aimed at underpinning the "rules-based order" and international law.
The US Department of Defence at the Shangri-La Dialogue will also release its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which will spell out the importance of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific".
While international attention has focused overwhelmingly on the PLA's new bases in the South China Sea, the access it offers to Taiwan, China's most sensitive core interest, is often overlooked.
Maj-Gen Yao, in her quest to break what she has described as discourse hegemony, has often pointed out that Taiwan - which occupies Taiping Island in the Spratlys - was militarised well before China's reclamation activities took place.
Dr Brendan Taylor's book, The Four Flashpoints: How Asia Goes To War, describes the "crisis slide" theory propounded by Dr Coral Bell in the 1970s. Dr Bell had described a concatenation of events which, in the aggregate, triggered both the first and second world wars.
Dr Taylor asserts that the components of a "crisis slide" are now evident across Asia. The book argues that since China's occupation of the South China Sea is a fait accompli, Taiwan is a significant flashpoint not to be ignored.
In recent months, the US Navy and coast guard have made several transits of the Taiwan Strait, resulting in angry language from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. China has responded by holding military exercises in the vicinity.
Further escalating bilateral tensions, US National Security Adviser John Bolton met his Taiwanese counterpart David Lee earlier this month, the first meeting at this level since 1979. Furthermore, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has openly subscribed to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy.
US-China relations have continued to decline as the trade war grinds on, strategic rivalry spills over into the digital domain, and China is accused of exploiting debt trap diplomacy through the Belt and Road Initiative.
While President Xi is actively promulgating his vision for the international global order, the Trump administration has taken an overtly critical approach to China, fuelling the widening strategic mistrust between China and the US. Now, it seems, the US is more eager than ever to play the Taiwan card against China.
In his first address to a large international audience at the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing in October last year, Gen Wei condemned the US for accusing Beijing of interfering in US domestic politics and colluding with other countries to form an anti-China alliance. His speech followed one by China's third most powerful Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu, who also decried alliances aimed at third parties.
But Gen Wei took a further step of calling on the US to "remedy its mistakes", vowing military action against attempts to support Taiwanese independence. It is very likely that he will repeat this message on Sunday, in a renewed effort to break the discourse barrier that China first encountered in 2014.
Meanwhile, China has argued consistently, and increasingly vocally, that the US alliance system in the Asia-Pacific is a moribund relic of the Cold War and that China is in a position to offer an alternative, more pluralistic approach to regional security.
In a year celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, Gen Wei will likely place great emphasis on this particular discourse.
• Alexander Neill is a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific security at IISS-Asia.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2019, with the headline 'Beijing moves to own the discourse at Shangri-La Dialogue'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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