William Choong, For The Straits Times

The mother of all security dialogues still going strong

With China's controversial reclamation in the South China Sea, many participants had expected this year's Shangri-La Dialogue to be a boxing ring, a reprise of last year, when China and the United States duelled sharply in the open.

In the end, both sides seemed to be part of a diplomatic gavotte. While they raised stern questions, the delivery was more deliberate and moderate. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter called on China to stop its reclamation in the Spratlys. Even when a Chinese colonel sought to taunt him by saying China's reclamation was "legitimate, reasonable and justified", Dr Carter remained unflappable. The US position, he stressed, was that all claimants - including China - should halt reclamation, not militarise features in the South China Sea further, and pursue peaceful resolution.

His call for all Asian countries "to rise, prosper and determine their own destiny" sounded bizarrely familiar to the entreaties by Admiral Sun Jianguo, the head of the Chinese delegation, who called for "win-win" situations and cooperative security.

Staying true to the traditions of the Dialogue, whereby countries proposed new initiatives, Dr Carter said the Pentagon will spend US$425 million (S$576 million) to help regional countries boost their maritime security capacity.

Similarly, Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani proposed the Shangri-La Dialogue Initiative, which seeks to promote common rules and laws at sea and in the air, increase the use of surveillance in the two domains, and build on the region's disaster response mechanisms. While the details are sketchy, they would if realised tamp down dynamics that lead to tensions or even conflict.

At the very least, this year's Dialogue has highlighted the very limits of what can be done about China's reclamation in the South China Sea. With innovations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the "One Belt, One Road" Initiative, China has become adept at offering economic carrots to dampen perceptions of assertive Chinese power.

The most worrying aspect of China's participation at the Dialogue this year was Admiral Sun's dogged refusal to directly address the barrage of questions put to him, most of them about the South China Sea. Looking visibly irritated, the admiral said he could only address them "briefly", that the answers were already in his speech, and added - quite bizarrely - that there are more "serious security issues than the South China Sea".

To its credit, China did send a strong delegation this year, and Admiral Sun is more senior in rank than Lt-General Wang Guanzhong, who attended the Dialogue last year. Members of the Chinese delegation told Ms Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, that Admiral Sun was uncomfortable with answering questions directly, and held out hope that he would be more relaxed at doing so next year.

That said, there could be a longer-term strategy behind China's participation at the Dialogue. It is an open secret that China has always felt that the Dialogue was a forum set up to criticise China's defence policies.

That is simply untrue. Rather, the central idea of the Dialogue is that it facilitates a candid exchange of views that leads to recognition of, if not the resolution of, the region's pressing problems. By virtue of its sheer weight, Beijing just happens to be a magnet for probing questions.

What is true is that China's Xiangshan Forum and other defence forums such as the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue (JIDD) and Seoul Defence Dialogue could pose challenges to the Shangri-La Dialogue in the longer term.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is, and will remain for a long time, the mother of all dialogues. As former US defence secretary Robert Gates has said, the Dialogue is a "forum without peer". The JIDD is a relative newcomer in the game. The Seoul Defence Dialogue invites vice defence ministers, and is largely focused on the Korean Peninsula (one policy wonk calls it the "little brother" to the Shangri-La Dialogue).

The Xiangshan Forum has potential. Last year, China upgraded it from a Track 2 (unofficial and largely academic) status to a Track 1.5 mode (participation of officials and experts).

China does have gravitational pull. Still, only six ministers of defence attended the Xiangshan Forum last year, including those from Singapore, Malaysia, the Maldives and Tajikistan. Compare this to 18 full ministers who were at the Dialogue this year.

That said, a defence forum with Chinese characteristics - where China insists on talking on matters it prefers to talk about, and not address the hard, controversial issues - might be less than desirable for regional security. One Indian analyst tweeted cynically during the Dialogue that China's "win-win" describes "circumstances in which China wins, and everybody else lets it win".

To take an opposite tack to the overused Churchillian quote, too much jaw-jaw without recourse to action might actually lead to war-war. So yes, the Xiangshan Forum is a welcome complement to the Shangri-La Dialogue. But for it to attain the level of robust exchanges and action that has been a signature of the Dialogue since its inception will be a long time coming.


The writer is a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organises the Shangri-La Dialogue.

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