Sino-US ties set to take centre stage at Shangri-La Dialogue

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe calls on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana on May 30, 2019.
Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe calls on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana on May 30, 2019.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Observers hope for more clarity on trajectory of ties, with defence leaders slated to speak

With the defence leaders of both countries scheduled to speak, observers are hoping for more clarity on the trajectory of the Sino-American relationship at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue.

Starting today, the annual forum will see Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan address plenary sessions on regional security and confidence building measures, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasising the importance of stable and constructive ties between the two superpowers.

The three-day dialogue, to be held at the Shangri-La Hotel, comes at a time of heightened trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, which have upended export-and import-led growth calculations for several other economies and are beginning to influence the future direction of their relationships with the United States and China as well.

The premier defence summit, which allows regional defence ministers, military chiefs, leaders and policymakers to engage in debate and discussion, has been organised annually by the London-headquartered International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) since 2002.

Announcements and statements made by American and Chinese officials and policy influencers on their bilateral ties ahead of the discussions seem to be dwarfing other significant issues that will be brought up at the forum, including concern about the stalled talks with North Korea and cyber security and maritime security issues, among others.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of reneging on promises not to militarise the South China Sea, while giving a talk at the Brookings Institution in the US.

"The fall of 2016, President Xi Jinping promised President (Barack) Obama that they would not militarise the islands. So, what we see today are 10,000-foot (3km-long) runways, ammunition storage facilities, routine deployment of missile defence capabilities, aviation capabilities and so forth," he said.

Separately, speaking to reporters on his way to Jakarta on Wednesday, Mr Shanahan said China remained his top defence priority, although threats in the Middle East and North Korea would "consume" his time.

IISS-Asia executive director Tim Huxley said that, along with Washington's thinking on China and North Korea, Mr Shanahan "is expected to spell out more in detail how the US Department of Defence will play a part in operationalising the administration's Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy".

General Wei, who is leading the People's Liberation Army delegation to this year's dialogue, will speak about international security cooperation on Sunday and take questions as well.

 
 
 
 
 

This is only the second time that a Chinese defence minister will be attending the forum. The last time was in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the dialogue, when China's then Defence Minister Liang Guanglie attended the meet.

"China's heavyweight military delegation is comprised not only of experts in international military cooperation and defence relations, but also includes two very senior officers with leadership experience in China's southern theatre command, the military region encompassing the South China Sea," said Mr Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at IISS-Asia.

China's high-level participation signals its intent to use significant opportunities to clarify or defend its position, said other experts.

Dr Li Mingjiang, associate professor and coordinator of the China programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, told The Straits Times that Gen Wei's visit for the dialogue has to do with the strategic rivalry between China and the US.

"Chinese leaders might be feeling that the matter is at a critical juncture, and they should use every opportunity to explain China's position," he said.

During his keynote address today, PM Lee is expected to highlight the role Singapore and other small states could play in bolstering the world order.

This year's dialogue will see 33 ministerial-level delegates and over 30 chiefs of defence forces and senior defence officials, a statement from Singapore's Ministry of Defence said yesterday.

President Halimah Yacob will host a dinner for delegates at the Istana tomorrow, it added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2019, with the headline 'Sino-US ties set to take centre stage at Shangri-La Dialogue'. Print Edition | Subscribe