Commentary

China's choice: Velvet glove or mailed fist

In the days he worked for the Boeing Company, Acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan would often take people into its manufacturing facilities outside Seattle and point out, proudly, that one in three of the aircraft tails taking shape bore Chinese livery.

These days, his job is not to highlight the economic promise of the China market but to emphasise the perils of its assertiveness and global ambitions, and the potential hazards of leaving it unchecked.

This is what Mr Shanahan did yesterday at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the region's premier security forum.

"When a country makes a pledge and does not follow it, you should worry. When that same country makes no pledge… you should really worry," he told the overflow audience.

Both at the conference and in a report on the US Indo-Pacific Strategy simultaneously released to the media, the US laid out its own vision for the Indo-Pacific - one where it stands against nations that employ a "toolkit of coercion" to bend others to their will and, at the same time, gathers allies as "respected partners finding security and prosperity in a mesh of interconnected peoples, economies and security relationships".

China, he made it clear, did not fit in this group and his implied message was twofold. First, as the Victorian-era jingoistic line goes, the US does not want to fight. But, by jingo, if it does - "we have the ships, we have the men, we have the money too".

This was the distilled meaning behind the dossier that Mr Shanahan handed to his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, when the two met in a 20-minute pull-aside shortly before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his keynote speech on Friday night.

That dossier, described as an "album" by Mr Shanahan , carried precise and graphic details that the US, and other Western intelligence agencies, had gathered on the secretive ship-to-ship transfers meant to thwart United Nations sanctions on North Korea, and on other black operations in the region.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

China, Mr Shanahan implied, could be as much a partner as any of the other countries in helping to check all these.

The US, he said, did not fear competition from China, provided it play by internationally set rules. Neither did the US want to curb Chinese influence in the region.

China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region too, but behaviour that erodes other nations' sovereignty and sows distrust of China's intentions must end, he added, calling such behaviour "myopic".

"I say now that China could still have a cooperative relationship with the United States."

The opening day of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue is awaited with much anticipation because it has featured robust exchanges between the US and Chinese delegations in recent years. In the build-up to this meeting, which comes amid worsening anti-China rhetoric from the Trump administration, more than one Western analyst had predicted that Mr Shanahan would deliver "fireworks". Instead, he largely avoided calling out China by name, leaving that to the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.

Ms Bonnie Glaser, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the speech had the briefest references to the South China Sea she had heard in recent years from a US defence chief at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Indeed, Mr Shanahan's remarks may even have caught the Chinese by surprise.

Unlike the exchanges of the past, the military delegation from Beijing responded with a notably anodyne query about prospects for a "shared future".

None of this means that the US is easing its pressure on China. Just as India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi did last year on the morning of his keynote speech to the summit, Mr Shanahan also seemed to have dialled down the tenor of his remarks, perhaps as a concession to regional sentiment.

That said, he did not leave anyone in doubt about America's seriousness of purpose.

Many analysts, including military voices in Beijing, have recently pointed out that China's military expansion, particularly in the naval arena, has outpaced that of every other major power.

Mr Shanahan had a counter to those who think Chinese military domination in the Indo-Pacific is inevitable. Everything was in place for America's own build-up, he suggested, and never before has the US Congress been so supportive of a presidency that was swivelling round to confront the threat to US dominance.

In the next fiscal year, the US would spend US$104 billion (S$143 billion) just on research and development, much of it aimed at "unique operational challenges in this theatre". This included artificial intelligence, hypersonics and laser.

With 370,000 pairs of military-related boots in the region, 2,000 aircraft as well as 200 ships and submarines, the US Indo-Pacific Command has four times the assigned forces as any other geographical US command. More is to come, including assets placed in space.

"The highest-end, most capable assets are being placed in the Indo-Pacific - right where they belong," he said, describing the region as "our priority theatre".

The choice he presented to countries in the region was that they could choose to walk with the US, or face the emerging challenges alone. Partners who pursued interoperability with the US as part of a regional security network would be able to access much of these technologies as well as the US investments and progress that go with them.

Although the issues between the US and China will not go away, or be resolved too soon, the speech lightened the atmosphere and the temperature was decidedly warmer when the US and Chinese delegations met at the ministerial lunch hosted by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

"If it were a silent movie, you wouldn't know there was a dispute (from the body language)," said Dr Ng.

Still, the issue remains that regardless of how sensible the top echelons of militaries are, at the end of the day, they are but the sword arm of the commander-in-chief. In America's case, that currently is the very unpredictable Donald Trump, who turns on allies and foes alike at whim.

Just last week, his Department of Treasury put Singapore, which runs a large trade deficit with the US, on a watch list of countries that manipulate their currencies to gain an unfair trade advantage. Others on the list include treaty allies Japan and South Korea.

This disconnect between economics and geopolitics is one of the bizarre aspects of the Trump administration's grand strategy. Three years ago, then Defence Secretary Ash Carter described the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a high-quality trade deal, as having the same strategic value as one more aircraft carrier battle group.

Then Mr Trump came along and pulled the US out of the TPP on his first day in office.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 02, 2019, with the headline 'China's choice: Velvet glove or mailed fist'. Print Edition | Subscribe