Speaking Of Asia

Musings on the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue

Three undercurrents permeated the discussions at the Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). They were based on viewpoints that need debunking.


It has become something of a set-piece routine lately at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, the 15th edition of which concluded last weekend. The United States Defence Secretary delivers a tough speech on his way to Singapore, then comes up with a more reasonable tone on Saturday morning, the only full working day of the annual three-day event. Next day, the Chinese, typically represented these days only at the level of deputy chief of staff, come up with their response.

This year as well the pattern was repeated. Dr Ashton Carter, after laying out a vision of cooperative behaviour in the Asia-Pacific - even noting that the US and Chinese navies would sail together from Guam to Hawaii as they prepared for the annual Rimpac exercise - pointed out that China risked putting itself behind a "Great Wall of self-isolation" with its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, including militarising the islands it occupies. The Chinese response, however, verged on the truculent.

Warning that "we don't make trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble", Admiral Sun Jianguo complained of Cold War mentalities, denied China was short of friends, claimed that it had agreed with Asean to settle disputes through "bilateral mechanisms" and generally painted his nation as a victim of bullying. Listening to him, Dr Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute thought he hit "Volume 10 on the decibel level" at times. A member of Adm Sun's delegation later told me, half-apologetically, that the officer belonged to a generation that believes it has to shout to make a point. The current crop, he assured me, know that you can be firm without raising your voice.

Adm Sun's performance was reminiscent of an incident a half-century ago when, at the height of the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table as he intervened in a United Nations debate in New York. Interestingly, then, as now, the provocation was the behaviour of the Philippines, which Khrushchev described as a "toady of American imperialism". But Adm Sun's speech also had hints of something else: China's nervousness at the impending ruling of the UN Arbitration Tribunal that's been asked by Manila to clarify Beijing's claims over the South China Sea and the validity of its nine-dash line map.


Observing the flow of the weekend discussions, it was impossible to ignore three things that permeated the discussions. First, everyone, the Chinese included, seemed to assume that the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague would rule decisively against Beijing. It might yet, but how can you be so certain? Last week at a World Economic Forum panel on Asean which I moderated, Mr George Yeo, Singapore's former foreign minister, said "it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the legality of China's claims". Likewise, Mr Yeo's successor, Mr K. Shanmugam, said in 2014 that "the situation is a little more nuanced than the way it is being portrayed in the international media".

The other pervasive myth, especially among delegates from the region, was that China, the No. 1 trading partner for most, was somehow more important economically to them than they themselves were to the Chinese.


In truth, the relationship is more symbiotic. China, whose exports are flagging, needs continued access to the big markets of India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam to keep its economic engines humming. Its biggest source of foreign direct investments lately has been tiny Singapore. Meanwhile, according to the Asean Secretariat, the top source of foreign direct investment into Asean is not China but the European Union, intra-Asean states and Japan. This, by no means, is a one-way street.

There was a third undercurrent.

This was that the US would make a lot of noise but back off ultimately from taking any decisive action against China, should the arbitral panel rule overwhelmingly for the Philippines, and China ignores the decision. Indeed, in private conversation some Chinese were sure that their aggressive tailing of US patrol craft in the air and in the sea had already begun to have an impact on Washington, which did not wish to provoke an incident.

But that, too, may be a miscalculation. Meeting on the fringes of the dialogue with Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham - lawmakers whose influence will only rise should Mr Donald Trump make it to the White House - I was taken aback at the vehemence with which both spoke about China's assertive behaviour.

Senator McCain suggested that the US president should assemble a team of 10 of his best generals and diplomats - including people like Gen David Petraeus, Lt-Gen Sean MacFarland and the diplomats Kurt Campbell and Ryan Crocker - to discuss how best to tackle China. "They'll know what to do," he told me, meaningfully.

Senator Graham, one of the big voices in American security circles, had another tack. He is, he said, considering introducing legislation in Congress that would require the US to name state sponsors of cybercrime, rather on the lines of a similar one that names sponsors of terrorism. Those who get on the list would face consequences.

"We just need them to pay an economic price when they cheat... There are so many ways we could get their attention," Mr Graham said.

Despite the overwhelming attention that the US-China relationship gathered at the dialogue, also called the Asia Security Summit, there were plenty other matters to take note of this time around.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian launched the powerful idea that European navies should coordinate patrols in the South China Sea and fully participate in freedom of navigation operations, or Fonops.

India sent its defence minister after a gap of some years, making it possible thus for Singapore and India to have their first bilateral strategic defence dialogue on the sidelines of the summit.

South Korea, which usually is reluctant to take the floor at the Shangri-La dialogues, chose to make a ministerial speech this year. Minister Han Min Koo clearly felt the need to remind Asia that the troubles in North-east Asia need to be given due airing and that the dialogue should not be dominated by the events in South-east Asia alone. And then there were the statements by the Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean defence ministers, all of whom raised concern over returning jihadist fighters unsettling the region.

Backstage, out of the public view, more than a dozen intelligence chiefs from the Asia-Pacific region, including US Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan, held their own meeting to discuss issues of common concern. From its modest beginnings in 2002, the dialogue organised by the London-based global think-tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), has, indeed, travelled an impressive distance.

"The SLD has grown and established itself as the premier defence and security forum in the Asia-Pacific region," President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who was defence minister when the dialogue was conceived in 2002, told the delegates at an Istana reception. "This year, 31 ministers and participants from 35 countries came to the dialogue."

Dr John Chipman, director-general of the organiser IISS, credits the dialogue for having helped foster an environment that led to the establishment of the Asean Defence Ministers Meetings in 2006, and subsequently ADMM Plus, which adds Asean's eight dialogue partners.

"The Shangri-La Dialogue, because it promotes flexible consultations and is not bound down by rules, tries to remain ahead of formal structures," says Dr Chipman. "In the years to come, it is important to fully integrate the key South Asian states into the Dialogue - not just India, but also Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh."

Now that India has formalised its Act East policy, he says, it should ensure that its defence minister turns up for every annual meeting. Also, that the Chinese must raise their level of representation to that of defence minister or, even better, the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

"Technically, the Chinese deputy chief of staff is junior to every other person who spoke in the plenary. So, we bend over backwards to ensure that despite the representation at a more junior level they still have a place in the plenary. This is not a privilege we can extend in perpetuity. The fluency of Chinese defence diplomacy at Shangri-La would be much strengthened by sending a minister."

It's tough to say what the next year will bring. By then the arbitration ruling would have been delivered. On current form, it does not look like any solutions to the region's festering disputes are coming into view. Indeed, the best one can hope for is that the tense regional situation does not get worse, or is complicated by other factors, such as a successful jihadi strike on an Asian state or more wild behaviour from North Korea. One thing is for sure: There'll be plenty to talk about.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2016, with the headline Musings on the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. Subscribe