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Shangri-La Dialogue: The Confrontation That Never Was – Analysis


This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue featured keynote speeches by the Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, China’s Defense Minister and State Councilor General Wei Fenghe, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who provided a view from the region. It was anticipated to display a region-shaking US-China clash – or compromise.   Indeed, several analysts predicted “fireworks”.  But what actually transpired was ‘not a bang but an anti climatic whimper.’  Why, and what does it mean?

The ‘great expectations’ of a significant development in US-China relations were due to hype by the organizers, drum beating by the press and nationalists on both sides, and genuine regional fears.  The geopolitical context was a burgeoning trade war and an increasingly tense contest to dominate the South China Sea. In the run-up to the event, US actions and insults had contributed to such expectations.

As both a response and a contribution to the anti-China hysteria sweeping Washington, US Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) reintroduced the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act.    

Its purpose is to “impose sanctions against Chinese entities that participate in Beijing’s attempts to assert its expansive maritime and territorial claims in these disputed regions.”   This bill is ill-informed  and misguided, and needlessly angered China who saw it as an assault on its sovereignty. 

Then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford unfairly accused China’s Xi Jinping of breaking his promise that China would not militarize the South China Sea.  And, in a press conference just before the opening of the Dialogue, Shanahan raised the temperature by referring to China’s ‘militarization” of the features as “overkill”.

So what did actually happen?  The two defense ministers had a brief  “pull aside” meeting in which they may have tacitly agreed to “let sleeping dogs lie” and then delivered their keynote speeches.  There were indeed complaints and implied threats from both sides with the U.S. – as it turns out – – engaging in what seemed like ‘overkill.’ Although Shanahan did not directly name China when he spoke of “actors” destabilizing the region, he criticized “some in our region” for using what he called a “toolkit of coercion” including island-building, deploying advanced weapons systems to disputed areas, engaging in predatory economics and the state-sponsored theft of military and civilian technology.’ He then went on to hype China’s militarization of the features declaring that “If these trends in these behaviors continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths”. 

According to Shanahan the U.S. cannot fully trust China until Beijing starts playing by the ‘international rules’.   “Behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end,” Shanahan said.  He added: “We’re not going to ignore Chinese behavior.  In the past, people have kind of tip-toed around that.”  “We can’t … continue to look the other way as countries use friendly rhetoric to distract from unfriendly acts.”

Even more provocative, Shanahan also said that the U.S. would continue to support Taiwan’s efforts to defend itself.   

Chinese delegates like Major Gen Shao Yuanming and Senior Colonel Zhou Bo responded by stating that it was the U.S. that was eroding sovereignty, sowing distrust and destabilizing the region, its recent actions like close in intelligence probes, stepped-up provocative Freedom of Navigation Operations and  an increased  military presence in the South China Sea.

Shao said China welcomed the U.S.’s efforts to maintain a stable military-to-military relationship with the People’s Libration Army, but opposed its so-called freedom of navigation operations in the air and at sea, which he said were an excuse to reconnoiter Chinese territory.  Wei added that “it is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction” of  “self-defense” facilities.

Yes there were insults and responses by China thereto.  But perhaps to the frustration of the warmongers, none were new, none were ‘region shaking’ , and none have given immediate impetus to a US-China contest clash.  Bonnie Glaser of  the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said Shanahan’s speech actually had the briefest references to the South China Sea she had heard in recent years from a US defense secretary at the Shangri-La Dialogue. 

Instead, the relative ‘pulling of punches’ may be seen as signs of willingness to compromise. 

Indeed, both actually seemed more open to dialogue and compromise.  Why might this be so?  The region is very concerned that a clash will destroy its ‘centrality’ in security and tear ASEAN apart by forcing its members to choose sides. 

This was clearly communicated to both by the ASEAN participants including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Shanahan seemed to reflect this concern when he observed that “_ _we have to up our game on talking about interactions,” adding that the U.S. will have a larger presence in the region for various military exercises.  “Our responsibility is to show them what we’re actually doing.” 

Shanahan’s speech was also his ‘audition’ to both the world and U.S. top leaders in Congress.  His nomination for permanent secretary has still not been sent to Capitol Hill by President Donald Trump.  He may not have wanted to appear to be another warmonger with a US security team already dominated by them.    Moreover, given the standoff between its allies Japan and South Korea, the last thing the U.S. needs right now, is a clash with China. The U.S. may also be realizing reality in that—as Glaser puts it–“The U.S. can’t roll back Chinese island building and militarization in the South China Sea.

 China’s response was surprisingly relatively subdued.   Of course Wei and other military leaders defended China’s rights in the South China Sea and to reunify with Taiwan.

He also observed that “Some deliberately create division, hostility, provoke confrontation, meddle in regional affairs, interfere in others’ internal affairs and frequently resort to arms”. Both China and the U.S. engage in many of these activities in the region. But in a departure from past conferences, Shanahan faced little backlash from the Chinese leaders in the audience during the question-and-answer session.   Wei said “It takes two to cooperate but only one to start a fight.”  “We hope that the U.S. side will work with us towards the same goal, follow the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, and steer the China-U.S. relations in the right direction.”

 Despite what Shanahan seemed to think were his strong words, Wu Shicun, one of the Chinese delegates at the Singapore forum and head of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said he thought the US defense official struck a conciliatory tone.  “Shanahan’s moderate view shows the U.S. wants to maintain a stable security relationship with China by trying to prevent any possible military conflicts_ _”

China may have been signaling a slight course correction motivated by a desire not to be cut out of the discourse at high profile security dialogues and to capitalize on the unpredictability of U.S. under the Trump administration.

As some analysts say, the Shangri-La Dialogue and others similar forums are all about “posturing”. If so the tone and tenor of this one was mellower than expected.

 Whatever the reasons, this event disappointed the warmongers and encouraged the diplomats.  Hopefully the latter – and compromise – – will triumph as the situation evolves. But time will tell if this is a temporary respite or sign of a willingness to live with the leaking status quo.

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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