Shangri-La Dialogue: When China drew level with the US, but missed some opportunities

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The Straits Times associate editor Ravi Velloor highlights key takeaways from the Shangri-La Dialogue on Sunday (June 2).
The 18th Shangri-La summit, which concluded on June 2, was held under the overhang of a geopolitical situation that seems to be getting more clouded by the day, writes ST associate editor Ravi Velloor. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - In many ways, the just-concluded 18th Shangri-La Dialogue will be remembered as the regional event where China drew level with the United States - optically at least.

Chinese delegations to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue have tended to complain about not getting enough air time to voice their thoughts, compared with the Americans.

In turn, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the conference organiser, has consistently responded that if the level of Chinese representation was high enough, so would the platform be.

This year, China sent its defence minister to the premier security summit after a gap of eight years.

Given the platform of an exclusive opening plenary on the summit's third day, General Wei Fenghe on Sunday (June 2) turned in a masterly performance, calmly defending Chinese positions and displaying neither anxiety nor alarm over his country's rapid deterioration in ties with the US.

While US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan had generally avoided calling out China in his own speech the previous day, Gen Wei had no such qualms. In his opening lines, he laid out the scenario.

"We hold different views with the US on several issues, and firmly oppose its wrong words and actions concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea," said the Chinese defence minister, mincing no words.

It was a message tailored equally for an audience both at home and abroad. Unlike Mr Shanahan, who did not seem to relish the post-speech engagement with the 600 ministers, military brass and analysts assembled, Gen Wei had the air of a man who had all morning for them.

His domestic audience saw a general fully capable of defending China; the global assembly in the Shangri-La ballroom saw an officer neither overly concerned by the situation nor shying away from it.

The 18th Shangri-La summit, which concluded on Sunday, was held under the overhang of a geopolitical situation that seems to be getting more clouded by the day.

As Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in his conference-closing remarks, the events of the month past, particularly the breakdown of trade talks between the US and China, and the tariff and technology barriers being swiftly erected, "have altered the trajectory of this region into an altogether different orbit".

A year ago, we were "hoping" that nothing would go wrong, a key summit figure told me on the sidelines. Today, he said, that has turned to "fearing" that a lot could yet go wrong.

While saying he did not expect anyone to take sides in the US-China struggle for dominance, Mr Shanahan, while calling for a network of allies and partners in the region, made it clear he expected them to foot more of the defence bill, and build common platforms with the US. This, he said, was also the way to future prosperity.

Eager to get out of the way, it is getting evident that many countries are gently shifting positions, or if nothing else hurrying to take a centrist line.

For instance, Australia, a treaty ally of the US, spoke up for continued American economic and strategic engagement with the region, but some observers took note that its defence minister Ms Linda Reynolds omitted to mention a "US-led" regional security order. While this may well be an oversight by a person only four days into her job, the world will be watching to see if it presages a deeper course correction.

South-east Asia, with deep economic and military ties to the US, and close ethnic and trade links with giant neighbour China, has its work cut out to balance the competing pulls.

Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu spoke on Sunday of the great common threats facing Asean, and the "deterrence" that the region, with a combined population of 620 million and men in uniform numbering 2.3 million, could bring to face down these threats.

But, given the vast disparities between maritime and mainland South-east Asia, and with strategic orientations varying so widely between nations, any form of a common defence platform is not at all realistic.

That said, it is evident that the region needs to have a serious discussion about what Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described as the possibility of "sleep-walking into another international conflict".

Unable to jell militarily, the region has no option but to stand by and allow a widening band of outside players to enter the arena in the name of security, irking stalwarts such as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Ms Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, made a particular point of the Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group tethered at Changi Naval Base to insist her country will have its say in the "building blocks of a global confrontation taking shape in Asia".

This, she said, was a "question of principle when rules are no longer the boundary of ambition".

As cool as Gen Wei was, the Chinese defence minister missed an opportunity to address such sentiments and offer more soothing words to this troubled region.

China specialist Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says he would have liked to hear more from Gen Wei on the notion that Chinese military modernisation has created a classic security dilemma whereby China's actions to enhance its security has spread insecurity among its neighbours, and further afield.

On Sunday, that was not forthcoming.

One opportunity Beijing has to match its words with deeds is to help the speedy conclusion of a quality Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. Once that is in place, and particularly if China were to yield on making it a legally binding document, South-east Asia would breathe a lot easier.

As of now, though, a legally binding COC seems a distant possibility.

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