By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
The discussions at the 15th Asian Security Summit (3-5 June 2016), popularly known as Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore were indicative of the existing deadlock among the countries about Asia’s future security architecture. Overall, the discussions were quite pessimistic. The two most important players in the regional politics – the US and China – openly alleged each other on the issues of escalations in the South China Sea as well as the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean peninsula.
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned China that it was at the risk of ‘erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation’ if it continues its current policies in the region. Carter criticised the Chinese military buildup in the region and said he hoped that “this development doesn’t occur because it will result in actions being taken both by the United States, and actions being taken by others in the region that will have the effect of not only increasing tensions but isolating China.” Japan too made stern statements about Chinese activities in the South China Sea.
In response to the China’s claim that the US and Japan are ‘outsiders’ in the region, Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said no country could be ‘outsider’ when it comes to regional stability. Responding to the US’ stern words, the Chinese representative at the Dialogue, Deputy Chief of General Staff, People’s Liberation Army, Admiral Sun Jianguo, claimed sovereignty in the region and said China “had no fear of trouble.” He claimed “we were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now, and we will not be isolated in the future.” He suggested countries, indirectly indicating towards the US, to come out of the ‘Cold War mentality’.
Similarly, on the issue of THAAD, the US defense secretary claimed that the issue of THAAD deployment would be raised during his discussion with the South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo. Another defence official of the US even claimed that the US and South Korea would make a ‘public announcement’ about the deployment of a THAAD unit. However, in his bilateral talks with the South Korean defense minister, the Chinese representative Sun Jianguo warned South Korea that “it would destabilize the Asia Pacific region.” Sun said that it would “infringe China’s strategic interests.” Although, South Korea responded by stating that “China is overestimating THAAD” and that his country has “the will to allow THAAD deployment,” in another statement, he denied the US defence secretary’s claim that Seoul would discuss the issue during his meeting with Carter in Singapore.
Actually, it seems that the US and China are not ready to compromise and accommodate each other’s security concerns and a game of ‘staring at each other’ is going on. In the sidelines of the Summit, defence ministers of the US, Japan and South Korea held a trilateral dialogue and stressed their collective efforts to pressurise North Korea via UN resolution 2270 – passed in March 2016 after the fourth round of North Korean nuclear and missile tests. The leaders representing Washington, Seoul and Tokyo were in agreement that a diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang is fruitless, and demanded more cooperation with Beijing towards the implementation of UN Resolution 2270.
It is interesting to note that China appears to be moving in an entirely different direction. Just a few days before the Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese President Xi Jinping met North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong in Beijing. This is an important departure from Xi’s approach towards North Korea after he assumed office in 2013. Previously, he had avoided any direct high level contacts with Pyongyang but now there are speculations that he may have a summit meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the coming months.
Thus, the intensity of the contest in the regional politics was demonstrated at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Although around 500 defence and diplomatic officials and experts from 52 countries, including defence ministers from 23 countries participated in the dialogue, the contest between the US and China was clearly the main theme of the conference.
Unfortunately, a ‘third opinion’ remains almost ineffective in the process.
Washington and Beijing are scheduled to hold their annual high-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue (6-8 June 2016) in Beijing. Hundreds of US and Chinese officials will conduct further discussion on regional issues. The US Secretary of State John Kerry, the US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang will to participate in the dialogue. However, it appears that both the parties are not ready to budge from their respective positions.
Thus, the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue showed that great power contests are going to overwhelm peace and security concerns of other countries. It is high time to ask if the great powers of the region remain adamant on the stubborn positions, would not it be correct to articulate a ‘third opinion’? In the cacophony of contests that seems improbable; but if countries like India take the lead in articulating such an ‘opinion’, it would be a positive move for regional security and would also enhance India’s stature and position in regional politics.
* Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS.