News analysis

Shangri-La Dialogue: US makes a splash by raising thorny issues

As a debutant on the Asia-Pacific stage, Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan made quite a splash. Even before his first major speech in Asia, delivered on the second day of the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday, he hit the headlines when he hailed as "constructive and positive" his much-anticipated meeting with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, amid a growing rift between Washington and Beijing.

A day later, he grabbed eyeballs again, with a swipe at China. Without mentioning it by name, he said it subverted the rules-based order and posed the greatest long-term threat to the region. He declared the Indo-Pacific - using the Trump administration's preferred term - a "priority theatre" for the US. Bringing a sense of urgency to the US' decades-old presence in the region, he vowed to usher in "a new age of technology, partnerships and posture".

Three things stood out in his speech. One, an emphatic assertion that the US is an insider to the Asia-Pacific. Perhaps in anticipation of Gen Wei's remarks that "outsider" forces were destabilising the region, Mr Shanahan talked of a "shared geography" and a "natural presence" for the US here.

Two, he insisted that the US walks the talk as a veteran provider of security and prosperity to the region, pointedly comparing it with China. "America's annual two-way trade here is US$2.3 trillion (S$3.2 trillion), and US foreign direct investment is US$1.3 trillion, more than China's, Japan's and South Korea's combined," he said.

His third, and most controversial proposition, was an allusion that China was undermining the region with militarisation, predatory economics and influence operations. In a region where China is a major economic partner, a neighbour and a source of cultural heritage, this is difficult to swallow.

Challenged to identify the new element in his presentation - after all, the Indo-Pacific strategy had been aired before by President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and former defence secretary James Mattis - Mr Shanahan's answer was short: Bipartisan backing in Congress, which made money flow.

Not everyone was convinced. Mr Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, director-general of Sri Lanka's Institute of National Security Studies, was not buying the argument that China had designs on the region. "No one can deny the US has had liberal, hegemonic interventions, whether in Iraq, Libya or Syria," he told The Straits Times.

Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday, in his first major speech in Asia. Without mentioning China by name, he said it posed the greatest long-term threat to the region. PHOTO: EPA-EFE


To Mr Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, the Chinese general stole the show.

"One question I had was why the Chinese Defence Minister decided to come here - whether it was from anxiety or confidence. I got the impression that he came because he was confident that he could deliver his own thinking to the audience," he said. "I was kind of surprised. He didn't avoid Taiwan, the Uighur camps and other sensitive issues."

For those fearing a worsening of superpower hostilities, a point to ponder was whether Mr Shanahan stoked the fire. To Mr Abeyagoonasekera, it was the US that raised the thorny issues, thus the possibility of a conflict. "You can see that because the replies were coming from the Chinese," he said.

Mr Kotani disagreed. "Sometimes, you need to raise the sensitive issues to preserve stability," he told ST.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2019, with the headline 'US makes a splash by raising thorny issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe