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Elephants and Grass

As the rivalry between the US and China intensifies, regional countries voiced their concerns during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue regional defense summit

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

When defense officials from about 40 countries came to Singapore to discuss regional security issues at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s highest-profile defense summit, the simmering confrontation between the US and China over trade, technology and other issues loomed large over the forum.  

Both the US and China sent rather large delegations to the event, which was held from May 31 to June 2. The US delegation was led by acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and the Chinese delegation by Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe. Having long considered the event as a US-dominant platform where it rallied support from regional countries to put pressure on China, especially on the South China Sea issue, China had not sent its highest military officials in the past eight years. The last time was in 2011, when Liang Guanglie, then China’s defense minister, was present. 

In his speeches, Shanahan offered a restatement of the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Declaring that the US wants to “ensure no adversary believes it can successfully achieve political objectives through military force,” Shanahan said that the US has spent the last two years focused on restoring the readiness of its military forces in the region.  According to Shanahan, the US Indo-Pacific Command has four times the assigned forces of any other geographical combatant command, deploying 370,000 personnel, both military and civilian, 2,000 aircraft and 200 ships and submarines in the region. “The US does not seek conflict, but we know that having the capability to win wars is the best way to deter them,” Shanahan said.  

Reiterating that the Indo-Pacific is a priority theater, Shanahan called for regional countries to step up their military spending as well. “We are where we belong. We are investing in the region. We are investing in you, and with you. And we need you to invest further in yourselves.” 

In his speech, Wei said that China’s military buildup is only for self-defense and that China does not have the intention or the capacity to vie for the number one position in the world with the US.  

Addressing the trade talks between the two countries, Wei said that China will keep the door open if the US wants to continue the talks, but if the US wants a fight, “we will fight till the end.” He also iterated China’s stance on what it considers its core issues, and his strongest assertion came on the Taiwan question. “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will have no choice but to fight at all costs, for national unity,” he said. 

A Third Country’s View
While the US and China mostly just reiterated their stances on various issues, what really made this year’s forum different is the clear message delivered by regional countries that they do not have an appetite for a “new cold war” between the US and China.  

Among all the speeches delivered by regional leaders, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, speaking at the welcome banquet, articulated the broad sentiment of regional countries. 

“Our world is at a turning point. Globalization is under siege. Tensions between the US and China are growing,” Lee said in his opening remarks. “Like everyone else, we in Singapore are anxious.”  

Saying that “Southeast Asia is no stranger to the great game of nations,” Lee went on to offer a brief review of how the region was divided among imperial powers including “the British, Dutch, Spanish, French and, later, Americans” in the 19th century, followed by the Pacific War, and the proxy wars during the Cold War era. It was only after the Cold War, when the US became the dominant power in the region providing a stabilizing security presence, that regional countries prospered through export-led growth and foreign investments, Lee said.  

Moving on to the issue of China’s rise, Lee said China’s economic success in the past decades is a blessing to the world. “A failing China would have exported many problems to the world, quite possibly still including armed revolution. Its huge population would have been resentful and restless at being left behind by other countries,” Lee said. “China’s success has enabled the world to avoid this disastrous outcome.” 

Recognizing that China’s growth has shifted the economic and strategic balance of the world, Lee called for both China and the rest of the world, including the US, to adapt to the new reality. “China must now convince other countries through its actions that it does not take a transactional and mercantilist approach, but rather an enlightened and inclusive view of its long-term interests,” Lee said.  

Lee said the rest of the world should accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen. “It is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening,” he said. “China will have its own legitimate interests and ambitions, including to develop indigenously advanced technologies like infocomms and artificial intelligence.” 

Going over how the perception of China’s rise has led the US to take a more hostile approach toward China’s rise, Lee warned that the US should not expect regional countries to always follow its policy. “In a new cold war, there can be no clear division between friend and foe,” Lee said. 

“In fact, all of the US’s allies in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia, including Singapore, have China as their largest trading partner. They all hope that the US and China will resolve their differences. They want to be friends with both: to nurture security and economic ties with the US, as they grow their business links with China,” Lee said.  

Pointing to the rise of nationalism in both nations that he said was developing into “a zero-sum dynamic” that makes it very hard to construct an agreement that is politically acceptable to both parties, Lee urged the two countries to reach an accommodation. 

“Some people argue that compromise is not possible or perhaps even desirable, because the US and China hold such different values... Others observe that the US is a young country that wants everyone to be like them, while China is an old country that believes no one else can be like them,” Lee said. “[But] to expect every country to adopt the same cultural values and political system is neither reasonable nor realistic. In fact, humankind’s diversity is its strength.”  

“The story of humankind’s progress has been one of exchange of ideas, and continuous learning and adaptation,” Lee added.  

Lee also defended multilateralism. Regarding the US’s undermining of the WTO and its preference for bilateral deals, Lee said countries like Singapore cannot afford to adopt that approach. “Being small, we are naturally disadvantaged in bilateral negotiations,” Lee said.  

Lee voiced his support for various regional multilateral trade initiatives like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional 
Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade deals. Regarding the China-led Belt and Road Initiative, Lee said that Singapore sees it as “a constructive mechanism for China to be positively engaged with the region and beyond... That is why we are active participants.”  

Citing former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who in 2018 told the Financial Times that “we are in a very, very grave period for the world,” Lee called on international society to create “an open, stable environment where countries could prosper in peace.” 

General Wei Fenghe, China’s Minister of National Defense, (left) calls on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana, Singapore’s presidential house, on May 30, 2019. Wei was in Singapore to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue from May 31 to June 2

COC and Beyond
Lee’s speech is perhaps the most articulate view on the US-China rivalry made by a third country in recent years. “ASEAN countries have long been trying to avoid taking sides between the US and China, but Lee’s speech is the first time that an ASEAN leader has spelled out their refusal to take sides between the two powers,” Professor Hu Bo, director of the Ocean Strategy Research Center of Peking University, told NewsChina.  

Lee was not alone. While not as deliberated and comprehensive as Lee, defense officials from other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries delivered similar messages in their speeches. General Ngo Xuan Lich, Minister of National Defense of Vietnam, stressed that “peace, development and cooperation” remain the mainstream of the Asia-Pacific region. “We will continue to make further endeavors in contributing to regional multilateralism, promoting peace and reconciliation and preventing conflicts. This is our goal and duty as Vietnam assumes the ASEAN chairmanship in 2020,” Ngo said.  

On the South China Sea issue, Ngo called for China and ASEAN countries to “maximize their efforts to finalize the Code of Conduct (COC)” to reach a meaningful agreement, which Ngo said should aim to “preserve the status quo.”  

Unlike in previous forums, ASEAN countries have notably softened their rhetoric over the South China Sea disputes. According to Hu, as China has conducted several rounds of talks with ASEAN countries on a COC, agreeing to conclude the talks in three years, the situation in the South China Sea has stabilized.  

“With the framework, ASEAN countries have become more confident that the issue could be solved peacefully through negotiations with China,” Hu said. “This year, no ASEAN country joined the US to criticize [China] over the South China Sea, nor did they openly seek the support of the US.” 

Delfin Larenzana, Secretary of National Defense of the Philippines, for example, said in his speech that in order to solve the South China Sea issues, “China, along with other players and states should finalize a robust, mutually beneficial and inclusive COC.” 

According to The New York Times, Larenzana made quite a stir in March by saying that the Philippine government should reconsider its treaty with the US to avoid provoking a potential armed conflict with China. “The US, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea], is more likely to be involved in a shooting war,” Larenzana said.  

As ASEAN members become increasingly wary about the potential damage resulting from the US-China rivalry, they appear to become more assertive about refusing to take sides, with some calling for a more independent defense policy, just as some of the US’s European allies have done.  

During the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told the media that smaller countries in the region like Singapore have to invest in their own defense capabilities as the cost of any potential conflict is very high.  

“We are the grass,” Ng said, referring to a well-known metaphor in Southeast Asia that contends that when elephants fight, the grass is trampled.  

“We’re just sometimes trying to get out of the way, and at other times trying to make sure that the elephants neither fight nor make love too vigorously,” Ng said.  

“If they do, [we need to make sure] that we’re not part of the grass patch,” Ng added.