From 31 May to 2 June of this year, the scheduled IISS Shangri-La Dialogue took place in Singapore. It has been hosted annually (since 2002) by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Forum is gradually turning into one of the most reputable events, well attended by high-ranking government officials. It was established to enable dialogue on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, where the center of global political processes is shifting to.
Each Dialogue session is distinguished by the presence of prominent political figures, whose speeches address some important trends which characterize the situation unfolding up until that point in the region and, hence, set the tone for the entire Dialogue.
Last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the key participant at the event, where he first announced his nation’s intentions to have an all-encompassing presence not only in the Indian but also the Pacific Ocean. Hence, a long-standing (but hitherto unintelligible) concept behind India’s Look East Policy became more clearly defined.
Incidentally, during one of her visits to New Delhi 10 years earlier, Hillary Clinton, who held the post of US Secretary of State at the time, advised USA’s most important partner in Asia (in her attempt to incentivize it) to finally take on the role of a “doer” in the East instead of that of a long-term observer. Narendra Modi’s speech in Singapore last year became a response, of sorts, to this appeal to India. His keynote address included seven principles of India’s policy in relation to the Indo-Pacific region.
At this year’s Forum, the problematic nature of the relationship between the two world powers, the United States and the PRC, came to the fore. There had not been a sudden rise in tensions between the two nations as yet in the run-up to last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Hence, during the 2019 Forum the focus was on the addresses given by the US Secretary of Defense and China’s Minister of National Defence.
In essence, their speeches were illustrative of the increasingly uncompromising nature of the confrontation between the USA and China, which is certainly no longer confined to a ‘trade war’ and is taking place on many different fronts instead. Perhaps, this was never part of Donald Trump’s original plan, and much less so of Chinese leadership’s designs (however, the topic of infighting among various “clans” for leadership in the PRC is often speculated about by political scientists).
The speech given by Patrick M. Shanahan, the US Secretary of Defense, was essentially a presentation of the report entitled “The Department of Defense’s New Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which was published on the very same day (31 May). Overall, the key points and content of this document (if it is implemented) do not leave China with any other option but to abandon its “repressive world order vision” and desires “to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.”
All of these statements are propagandistic cliches with no clarifications, and serve as a preamble to the key message in the report that the USA is committed “to stability and prosperity in the region” by “employing effective deterrence”measures requiring a Joint Force that is prepared to win any conflict from its onset. The previously mentioned deterrence forces would be drawn from established as well as new alliances and partnerships.
USA’s main ally in the region is Japan. And during his speech at the Forum, Japan’s Minister of Defense Takeshi Iwaya expressed his full support for the key points made by Patrick Shanahan in his report. A corresponding commentary in the Yomiury Shimbun newspaper highlighted two factors. Firstly, the article focused on “continued incursions of Chinese ships into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands,” which are the subject of a territorial dispute between Japan and the PRC (where they are called the Diaoyudao Islands).
Secondly, a current trend is discernible, indicative of improving ties between Japan and the PRC. And the author of this article views this as an important difference when compared to the relationship between the United States and China. Still, naturally enough, Japan has demonstrated its support of its key ally, including in the sphere of limiting business ties with the company Huawei.
It is also noteworthy that during a face-to-face meeting between Takeshi Iwaya and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, Japan’s Minister of Defense agreed to come to the PRC. The official visit will take place at the end of 2019, and will be the first event of this kind in the past 10 years.
The delegation from Australia (another regional ally of the United States) was headed by Linda Reynolds, who became the Minister for Defence of this nation as recently as 29 May of this year. Ms Reynolds said that, thus far, she had spent 75% of her time in her new post at the Shangri-La Forum.
Arguably, the signing of the (8th) Australia-Japan-United States joint press statement following a meeting of the three nations’ defense leaders became the highlight of the Forum for Australia’s “newly minted” Minister for Defence. Unfortunately, the document itself includes long overused clichés such as “strong opposition to the use of any coercive unilateral actions” in the East China Sea and “militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea.”
The two counterparts of the US Secretary of Defense also expressed their support of the key points in his report, presented at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2019.
It is worth noting that on the day after the Forum, three Chinese military warships steamed into Australia’s Port Sydney, which caused quite a stir among unsuspecting locals strolling on the beach on that sunny day. In other words, Australian citizens, who had not fully recovered after the dramatic federal elections that had taken place recently, were in for yet another surprise. The leader of the Liberal Party, which had unexpectedly won the election for the second time in a row, i.e. the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, quickly reassured Australia’s jittery residents by saying that the government had been fully informed about the visit by Chinese ships, and that everything was in order.
The second key event during the Forum, held in Singapore, was the speech given by PRC’s Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe. Reports about it focused on two points. Firstly, the mere presence of the head of China’s military body at the Forum (a first in the history of Shangri-La Dialogues) was meant to illustrate PRC’s openness towards engaging in high-level dialogue on any complex issues with anyone who so wished.
At the same time, the tone of the speech, given by the Chinese Minister, became very tough whenever he talked about critically important issues for the PRC, such as the status of Taiwan, and the situations around the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. The tougher stance has been evidenced recently by the fact that China stopped making one-sided concessions as the tensions between the USA and the PRC continue to rise.
Finally, the author does not fully understand what role Europeans (who had a fairly impressive delegation this time around) played at the most recent (and previous) Shangri-La Dialogue. Federica Mogherini was in attendance on behalf of Brussels, while Ministers of Defense represented France, Great Britain and Sweden. Has Europe suddenly found itself in the grip of memories of the now distant past? After all in the present climate, their military presence in the region is starting to look more and more out of place.
What was the purpose of Charles de Gaulle’s (a French aircraft carrier) participation in military drills, which took place in the Indian Ocean recently, along with Japanese, US and Australian ships? Patrick M. Shanahan mentioned these military exercises, named after the famous French maritime explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, as an example of cooperation among the previously mentioned joint forces. Is France really planning on “deterring” China from the other side of the planet? Is the PRC really a threat to France? Why would the French government choose to get involved?
Trade ties trade between Europe and the nations of the Indo-Pacific region are in fairly good shape. And this sphere certainly deserves an increased focus, especially at appropriate forums and meetings.
Finally, it is worth noting that China has improved its ability to quickly learn from its mistakes in spheres ranging from protection of its political and strategic interests in the region to creation of bilateral and multi-lateral economic initiatives. The PRC is doing everything in its power to ensure that neither India, nor even Japan or Australia, become a part of Washington’s anti-Chinese alliances.
In the meantime, the US delegation continued its work on establishing such partnerships at the most recent Shangri-La Dialogue.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”