Shangri-La Dialogue should not be prelude to China-US showdown

This photo taken on May 5 shows crew members of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea.PHOTO: AFP

The Shangri-La Dialogue is a feast for the media. As an influential security forum, its attraction lies not only in policy deliberations by senior delegates but also in animated discussions, particularly during Q&A sessions. The spotlight is almost invariably cast on the China-United States relationship. Typically, the United States Secretary of Defence will speak first on the first day and a senior Chinese general, usually a Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), will speak first on the second day.

Such an astute arrangement by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the organiser, helps ensure maximum attraction to the delegates and media. It should be no different when the Shangri-La Dialogue, also branded the 15th Asia Security Summit, takes place in Singapore this weekend, from June 3-5.

Since 2013, the dialogue has seen the US Secretaries of Defence steadily stepping up their criticism of China, particularly on the South China Sea issue. This will surely invite a robust Chinese response. In 2014, General Wang Guangzhong, then Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA, departed from his prepared speech for 10 minutes to fire back at remarks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, made a day before.

Mistrust in the China-US relationship, especially in the security arena, is self-evident. The US National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2000 restricts the US military's exchanges with the PLA in 12 areas. The fear of the US Congress is that any exchanges in these areas might contribute to the PLA's war capabilities and "create a national security risk". China believes this is discriminatory and maintains that exchanges can only be on an equal footing.

The acrimony at recent Shangri-La Dialogues could mislead people to believe that the China-US relationship is vulnerable, or worse, that a showdown between the two giants is inevitable. Indeed a relationship between two major powers is intrinsically complex, but it is also resilient, partly because each side can ill afford the consequence of a conflict or confrontation. Currently, there are over 90 dialogues plus two hotlines between the two governments and two militaries to make sure the relationship stays on track.

China has accepted an invitation to attend Rimpac 2016, a multi-lateral exercise hosted by the US Navy off Hawaii. This will be the second time Chinese naval ships attend Rimpac.

What is the best hope for the China-US relationship? The answer: good management.

Thanks to joint efforts, confidence-building measures, such as the Notification of Major Military Activities and Rules of Behaviour for Safety of Maritime and Air Encounters, have been concluded. When the USS Lassen sailed close to Chinese Zhubi and Meiji reefs last October, the monitoring Chinese ships stood by, but the Chinese ships and the USS Lassen kept a safe distance in line with the procedures in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea that both navies have agreed to observe.

True, some differences between the two sides seem difficult to reconcile. Although both China and the US agree on the concept of freedom of navigation, they disagree on the legitimacy of US military surveillance and reconnaissance in China's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Furthermore, the US believes that China is using a salami-cutting strategy for slow but assured militarisation in the South China Sea. China, however, does not believe the US position that it does not take sides and has no position on sovereignty over the South China Sea. The United States' increased flights and sails off Chinese islands and reefs confirm to China that the US has finally stepped out from behind the screen. From the Chinese point of view, it is the US that is militarising the South China Sea.

Can China and the US cooperate with, rather than confront each other, at the Shangri-La Dialogue? Why not, if they can cooperate in climate change, nuclear security and denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula? Clearly there is a difference between being frank and being unnecessarily provocative. Few describe China and the US as enemies (yes, some call them "frenemies").

China's 2016 growth rate of the defence budget is the lowest since 1990. It shows not only China's further commitment to peaceful development, but also reflects that China is not gearing up for a conflict with the US.

The ever louder and sharper US voice at the Shangri-La Dialogue is not helpful. It could hoax people into believing that the two nations are slipping into a "Thucydides Trap" that both have vowed to try their best to avoid, that is, an Armageddon between a rising power and an existing power. Believing that a showdown between China and the US is inevitable is certainly wrong. And it is equally dangerous to let people believe that things are irreversibly moving in that direction.

•The writer is an honorary fellow with the Centre of China-American Defence Relations at the Academy of Military Science, a research institute of the People's Liberation Army.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'Shangri-La Dialogue should not be prelude to China-US showdown'. Subscribe