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The Shangri-La Dialogue

Risk and Reward

The Asia-Pacific’s security framework is at a crossroad as concerns over the implications of the Trump Administration’s ’America First’ stance persist at one of the most influential security summits in the region

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Since its launch in 2002 by the UK-based think tank, the Asian Security Summit, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) after its venue, Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, has developed into a major annual event in the region’s military calendar. It brings together defense ministers and military chiefs from the region, as well as academics and journalist from the Asia-Pacific region. 

This year, the SLD, held between June 2 and 4, was as significant as ever, attracting defense ministers from the US, Australia, Canada, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the Philippines, with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull giving the event’s opening remarks.  

Low Profile 

Although the event was as prestigious as ever, China appears to have downgraded both the rank and the size of its delegation. In the past few years, China has found itself in a defensive position at the SLD as the South China Sea disputes routinely become the most highlighted issue during the event, especially after the US launched the “Pivot to Asia” policy under the Obama Administration.  

The only time when China sent its defense minister was in 2011, when Beijing dispatched General Liang Guanglie, then defense minister, to the SLD. After Liang was caught in what China perceived as a hostile environment, facing pressure from the US and its regional allies on China’s South China Sea policy, China opted to send military officials of lower levels, often holding academic titles, to the event in the following years.  

This year, the Chinese delegation was headed by Lieutenant General He Lei, vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, who holds no official position in the Chinese government, to the event.  

On the first day of the event, it was no surprise that China was once again put on the spot as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlighted in his speech fears that “China would seek to impose a latter day Monroe Doctrine… in order to dominate the region.” (The Monroe Doctrine was the US principle of hegemony in South and Central America.) Turnbull warned that China’s action will lead regional countries toward “bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States.” 

The Trump Factor  

But compared to previous forums, the striking difference this year were the rising concerns among regional countries over the perceived US retreat from global leadership under the “America First” doctrine of new US President Donald Trump. 

Oh Ei Sun, former political secretary of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak from 2009-2011 and a current senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who has attended the SLD six times, told NewsChina that as much of the attention has shifted to the US, he found the overall discussion on the South China Sea issue in this year’s SLD much less confrontational than previous summits.  

US Defense Secretary James Mattis’s speech at the SLD, which many deemed the first major statement on Asian defense policy in the Trump era, was no doubt the most-watched event at the SLD.  

In the 30-minute speech, Mattis said that the US remains fully committed to its regional partners. Stressing that the US has assigned “60 percent of all US Navy ships, 55 percent of Army forces, [and] about two thirds of the fleet Maritime forces to the US Pacific Command area of responsibility,” Mattis pledged that the US will assign 60 percent of its overseas tactical aviation assets to the region soon. 

Mattis also reiterated Washington’s criticism of China’s conduct in the South China Sea. Citing examples of China’s artificial island construction and “militarization of facilities on features in international waters,” Mattis warned that the US would not tolerate these activities that violated the “rules-based order,” a major concept highlighted at the SLD.  

Beside the South China Sea dispute, Mattis also spent much of the speech on the North Korean issue. Highlighting the threat posed by North Korea, Mattis reiterated claims that the US does not seek regime change. After declaring that the US is “encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization,” Mattis reassured the audience that Washington’s quest for China’s cooperation on North Korea did not mean it would not challenge Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.  

On the surface, Mattis’s speech marks a continuity of rather than a departure from the Asia-Pacific policy of the previous Obama Administration. But for many analysts, Mattis’s speech offered no specifics on their primary concern – what Trump’s “America First” doctrine means for its Asia-Pacific policy.  

Oh Ei Sun told NewsChina that if there is something new about the US policy toward the region in Mattis’s speech, it was his call for “all countries to contribute sufficiently to their own security.” Oh said this could mean that the US would ask its allies in the region to spend more on defense, in the same way as Trump has made demands on NATO members that have caused a rift between the US and its European allies.  

According to Lu Chuanying, a research fellow at Shanghai Institute for International Studies, Mattis merely reiterated the US commitment in general terms, but failed to clarify some apparent paradoxes of US pledges. “On the one hand, the US stressed that it will not abandon its allies, but on the other hand, it continues to uphold the ‘America First’ doctrine,” Lu told NewsChina, “But so far, the Trump Administration has not yet offered clarification on the boundaries of these conflicting pledges.” 

The sentiment was crystallized in a question raised by Michael Fullilove, head of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, in the question session following Mattis’s speech. “Given everything over the past four months, including NATO, the TTP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and Paris, why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order?” asked Fullilove, referring to Trump’s pullout from the TTP and the Paris Protocol on Climate Change 

Mattis offered no direct answer. Instead, he made references to Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”  

China’s Reaction 

While China may welcome eroding confidence in Washington’s leadership in the region, it has its own concerns over the uncertainty of the Trump administration. The mention of Taiwan alarmed Chinese officials the most. In his speech, Mattis said that the US “remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide the defense articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in our Taiwan Relations Act.” 

It is the first time the Taiwan issue has been mentioned by any US defense secretary since the SLD was launched in 2002. The Taiwan issue has been a point of contention between China and the US, after Trump received a phone call from Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, and said that the Taiwan issue was up for negotiation. This was the first time a US president-elect has taken a phone call from a Taiwanese leader since China and the US normalized its diplomatic relations in 1979. Although Trump later re-affirmed the US government’s One-China policy, the Chinese government remains uneasy about Trump’s attitude.  

Mattis’s comment prompted Xu Qiyu, a senior research fellow from the Institute for Strategic Studies of the National Defense University and a member of the Chinese delegation, to ask Mattis in the public question section of the talk whether Trump’s call indicates any change in the US One-China policy. “The One-China policy holds,” Mattis said in response.  

In a press briefing held on June 4, He Lei, head of the Chinese delegation, criticized Mattis for only mentioning the Taiwan Relations Act but failing to mention the three China-US joint communiques that form the political foundation of the China-US relations.  

He also refuted Mattis’s criticism of China over freedom of navigation, arguing that close-in surveillance conducted by military aircraft and vessels in the adjacent waters and airspace of Chinese islands does not belong to the scope of the freedom of navigation. Regarding concerns over China’s threat to the “rule-based order,” He said China is a supporter and defender of international and regional rules, citing the role it plays in the United Nations.  

But compared to previous forums, China’s counter-criticism has been rather reserved, which appears to be in line with its generally prudent attitude following the election of Donald Trump.  

Policy Adjustments

In past months, given uncertainty about the policy of the Trump administration, China has shifted its stance accordingly. China has stressed the importance of keeping Sino-American relations from falling into conflict. At the same time, China has increasingly positioned itself as a defender of the global trade order and source of global stability and security.  

Two weeks prior to the SLD on May 18 at a high-level meeting held in Southern China’s Guiyang, China and ASEAN countries agreed on a framework of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) which sets the parameters for a final, more detailed agreement to be officially adopted by all the countries involved in the future.  

A day later, on May 19, China and the Philippines held their first bilateral consultation on the South China Sea issue, and announced the establishment of a biannual mechanism under which officials from both sides will meet alternately in China and the Philippines once every six months. This may explain the fact that delegations from ASEAN countries were absent, echoing criticism against China voiced by their Western counterparts.  

Also in May, China held a high-profile international summit on its Belt and Road Initiative, calling for a more inclusive growth and more balanced globalization.  

According to a report by the South China Morning Post during the SLD on June 3, citing an unnamed military official from China, Beijing has decided to cancel its Xiangshan Security Summit. Launched in 2006 as a biannual forum and later upgraded to an annual event, the Xiangshan summit has long been considered an event designed to rival the SLD. Citing another unnamed retired senior colonel, the report said that Beijing’s move was to “pacify its neighbors in the hope of attracting more support for the Belt and Road initiatives of President Xi Jinping.” 

According to Yao Yunzhu, director emeritus at the Center on China-America Defense Relations under the PLA Academy of Military Science, a member of the Chinese delegation, these efforts have paid off. Yao told NewsChina that a major change in this year’s SLD is that China is no longer just considered a threat to regional security, but also a potential source of solutions.  
For example, the feasibility of China’s “dual suspension” proposal regarding the North Korea issue attracted heated discussion in the special session “Nuclear Dangers in the Asia-Pacific”, according to Yao.  

Also, in the SLD’s fifth plenary session focusing on “Global Threats and Regional Security,” Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen highlighted China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Saying that “security and stability are pre-conditions and mutually reinforcing steps towards greater prosperity and progress,” Ng said Singapore’s geographic location would allow it to connect the overland Silk Road Economic Belt with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. 

According to Yao, as the future role of the US, the region’s dominant player so far, has yet to be clarified, China and regional countries will face a common issue in the coming years: how the security framework of the Asia-Pacific region will evolve.