Regional disputes lead to tense atmosphere in forum

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, now in its 13th year, is mostly a cordial affair.

Disagreements between the visiting defence ministers and top generals from the Asia-Pacific and beyond have always been politely couched. Confrontational comments rarely spill into the public.

Well, not this year. With temperatures rising from the worsening territorial disputes in the East and South China seas, and the broader geostrategic tussle in the region getting more intense, delegates have been far less shy about speaking their minds this time round.

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In his speech yesterday, for instance, United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered what was arguably the strongest public criticism of China to date at the defence forum.

He scolded Beijing for taking "destabilising, unilateral actions" in its territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, and warned it not to further coerce or intimidate its neighbours.

The Chinese delegation hit back during a question-and-answer session, with Major-General Yao Yanzhu of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) pointedly asking Mr Hagel if the US was threatening China with its repeated assurances that Washington would come to the aid of its allies in the region.

Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, who heads the PLA delegation, did not mince his words either, telling reporters after Mr Hagel's speech: "I felt that Secretary Hagel's speech is full of hegemonism, threat and intimidation."

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The pointed exchanges were not limited to the US and China. Vietnam's Defence Minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, used his time at the podium yesterday to demand that China withdraw a controversial oil rig that Beijing had deployed in waters disputed by the two countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used his keynote address last Friday night to repeatedly level veiled criticisms at Beijing. He also offered strong support for Vietnam and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with China.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein expressed worries about the growing tension surrounding the South China Sea disputes, saying: "Inflamed rhetoric and recriminations would not do any country any good."

With the Chinese delegation expected to mount a strong response today, the closing day of the forum, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin's comments will more likely than not fall on deaf ears.

Asked about the charged atmosphere at this year's forum, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen acknowledged that the temperature had indeed gone up, compared with those of previous years. Still, the visiting ministers managed to sit down for a private lunch that Dr Ng hosted, to continue their dialogue.

But there were no quick answers to what many of them saw as a growing "deficit of strategic trust" in the region.

"Everyone agreed that the Asia-Pacific region holds great promise," said Dr Ng. "So why is it that we are grappling with these issues, which we have not been able to de-escalate?"

That might not be a bad topic for next year's Shangri-La Dialogue.

Additional reporting by Bhagyashree Garekar