This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Asia’s premier defense summit, from May 31 to June 2 in Singapore will be more interesting than previous years for at least three reasons.
The first one is that a Chinese minister of national defense will be attending the SLD for the first time in eight years. The last time China sent its defense minister Gen. Liang Guanglie (2008-2013) was in 2011. On June 2, Chinese Defense Minister Gen Wei Fenghe is expected to speak about China’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. Wei is also scheduled to meet acting United States Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan.
According to the host of the SLD, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Gen. Wei will take questions directly following his address.
“General Wei Fenghe will speak on China’s role in the Indo-Pacific at a pivotal time for the region. His presence at the Dialogue provides a unique opportunity for those in attendance to engage with a leading figure within the PLA [People’s Liberation Army],” IISS director-general John Chipman said in a statement.
The second is, of course, the thorny issue of the South China Sea (SCS), one of the world’s busiest waterways and also the most contested maritime region.
As in previous years, the SCS conundrum will also be in the spotlight this year as all the claimants (except Taiwan) and the major powers will be there to discuss the issue in detail at the SLD. The organizers have taken all precautions to avoid putting Gen. Wei in an uneasy position as they have not included the SCS in any of the agenda items directly. They have even arranged Wei’s schedule (on the last day) in such a way that he will speak after Shanahan so that he can respond to all criticisms against China.
Certainly, the US, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, France and many other countries will raise the SCS issue and some countries are expected to denounce China’s illegal and assertive actions in the contested waters.
The third reason of interest will be an important announcement from Shanahan regarding US President Donald Trump administration’s new strategy on curbing China’s expansive maritime ambitions and the US’ role in the Indo-Pacific region. It is going to be very interesting to hear the first response from Wei to Trump’s new strategy.
This year, the host Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will deliver the keynote address at the 18th IISS SLD. He may speak about US-China relations and the role of small states in the regional security architecture.
“We are delighted that, in Singapore’s bicentennial year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will deliver the keynote address at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue’s opening dinner on 31 May.
Singapore, which has acted as host-country for the Dialogue since it started in 2002, has a major stake in the stability of its region and has consistently punched above its weight diplomatically and in terms of providing for its own defense,” Tim Huxley, the executive director of IISS-Asia, said in a statement.
The SLD comes at a crucial time when both China and the US are engaging in ongoing disputes over trade, freedom of navigation and overflight and the rules-based international order. The outcome of the SLD will be of relevance to ASEAN leaders, who will gather from June 22 to 23 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the 34th ASEAN Summit.
Given China’s increasing assertiveness, ASEAN countries need to speed up the signing of the Code of Conduct (COC) on the SCS with China. But ASEAN leaders must insist on the effectiveness of the COC. It should be legally-binding and based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Both ASEAN and China are signatories to the UNCLOS and it will be in everybody’s interest to follow the international rules to prevent clashes in the SCS. If the COC talks either take a long time or are diluted, as was the earlier Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, the situation will worsen and could lead to a major conflict in the region.
The US under President Trump is going to adopt tough measures in challenging the rising China on the issue of the SCS. Perhaps, the SCS conundrum may be the only issue where he can get full support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Just recently in the US Senate Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Ben Cardin re-introduced the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act to impose sanctions against Chinese citizens and entities that participate in China’s illegal activities in the disputed waters.
“This legislation is timely, given ongoing efforts by the United States to conduct freedom of navigation operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” Rubio said in a statement on his website.
China has lashed at Rubio and his colleagues.
“The legislation violates the basic norms of international law and international relations and the Chinese side, of course, firmly objects,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told journalists recently in Beijing.
“We urge the US side not to proceed with the deliberation of the legislation, in order not to bring new disruption to China-US relations”.
Coming back to the SCS issue, if all claimants agree to follow the UNCLOS, the tense situation could be eased. But China claims more than 80 percent of the massive 3.5 million-square-kilometer maritime area based on a controversial nine-dashed line, the mother of all disputes, while Vietnam – the second-biggest claimant – claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. The Philippines has a claim on the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly archipelago, while Malaysia and Brunei claim sovereignty over southern parts of the SCS and some of the Spratly Islands.
China’s claim is based on historical grounds not on the UNCLOS, which China has signed and ratified. China’s maritime claim based on the nine-dash line was rejected by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in a historical ruling in 2016, but China has ignored this ruling.
In the absence of strong opposition from other claimants, China has boldly continued its activities including building illegal islands, deploying weaponry and troops and curbing the rights of fishermen from other claimants.
For example, recently, China unilaterally imposed a fishing ban from May 1 to Aug. 16 in the Paracel Islands. The ban applies to fishermen from China and other countries. Vietnam, one of the victims of the fishing ban, said it was a unilateral decision and violated the DOC.
“Vietnam opposes and resolutely rejects China’s unilateral fishing-ban decisions,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Thi Thu Hang said.
This case clearly explains the urgent need for an effective COC.
It was a good thing that China has agreed to start COC negotiations with ASEAN. After all, China has very good relations with ASEAN. The COC may not resolve the SCS disputes but it can calm the situation and hopefully prevent conflict.