Whatever transpires at the summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue is a reflection of the reality of the current international security environment in Asia

China reclaims islands in the South China Sea, near the Spratly Islands. Image Philippine Armed Forces

By Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

This year, as with last, the geopolitical planets have aligned to create a highly charged Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). China-watchers are wondering whether there will be another showdown between delegates, after the Chinese deputy chief of the general staff accused Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then-US defense secretary Chuck Hagel at last year’s summit of colluding to provoke China.

All eyes will be on current US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s performance at the Dialogue to see how far he will be prepared to go in publicly criticising Beijing. His predecessor’s speech in 2014 generated a fierce rebuttal from the Chinese head of delegation. At a minimum, Carter’s speech is likely to fall in line with recent statements by Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who have both expressed concern at the pace of China’s reclamation operations in the South China Sea.

One year ago, a fleet of Chinese cutter-dredger vessels started work on six disputed coral atolls in the Spratly Islands, disgorging vast quantities of sand onto the submerged reefs, thereby providing the foundations for an air base, fortresses, radar stations and harbours which are now nearing operational status. For the past six months, international news headlines have increasingly cited the possibility of conflict in the region.

Despite Hagel’s pointed words last year about China’s increasingly assertive behaviour, there has been growing discord over the perceived sluggish Pentagon reaction to Chinese power projection into Southeast Asia. With Carter’s appointment, and his subsequent whistle-stop tour of the Asia-Pacific last month, there has been a noticeable uptick in US pushback in the region. However, many on both sides of the House on Capitol Hill have described this as too little, too late.

Short of blockading Chinese vessels in the Spratlys – which would surely risk an escalation of hostility with China – there is very little the US can do. Without the appetite to resist China by other states in the neighbourhood, and with a characteristic lack of cohesion within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Pentagon calculation may have been to wait and see, while attempting to galvanise unity among regional friends and allies.

Despite increased US Navy patrols, the Pentagon’s Pacific Command is struggling with sustained access to the region. Big bases like Guam and Yokosuka are thousands of miles away. The new class of Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) deployed to the region is operating from Singapore’s Changi naval base, where the operation is described as a ‘rotational deployment’ rather than a permanent basing. The brand-new P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft that have flown over China’s new islands are operating from the dilapidated Clark Air Base in the Philippines, abandoned by the US in 1991.

For China to have deployed such staggering resources at breakneck speed a thousand miles from its coast would have required a long-standing, intricate master plan and huge cash reserves. This maritime terraforming plan is not, as some Chinese commentators would suggest, some kind of fast-tracked reaction to a beefed-up US navy presence in the region. This project must have been devised by the best planners and engineers in the People’s Liberation Army and personally endorsed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

In creating new terra firma for China, the architects of this project will undoubtedly be feted in Beijing. Elsewhere, however, they have contributed significantly to fears of a dystopian Asia-Pacific dominated by China, supplanting the dominant US role in the region.

Earlier this month, the Financial Times reported that a group of former US defense secretaries and retired top military leaders had written a letter to Congress calling for legislation enabling President Barack Obama to finalise the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic cornerstone of the US rebalance to Asia. Without the TPP trade pact in place, they suggested, the US would forfeit leadership in the Asia-Pacific.

Increasingly, the discourse at the SLD reflects the growing rift in strategic outlook between China and the US. China’s perennial mantra at the summit is its benign intent and the pressing need for regional cooperation and dialogue. Its emphasis is on soft military engagement: humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and the processes to facilitate that, as well as ‘non-traditional security’. When PLA Navy Admiral Sun Jianguo speaks at this year’s SLD he is certain to continue in this vein. Sun’s speech is also likely to build on the ‘new security outlook’ discussed by President Xi at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Shanghai in May 2014. Xi’s call then for a new security infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific, transcending ‘Cold War thinking’, offers an alternative to the US-led system in the region.

China’s new defence White Paper: China’s Military Strategy is useful to understand China’s narrative of threat perception. The document describes new threats from ‘hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism’, plus grave concerns over the US rebalancing strategy and Japan’s behaviour. China speaks of meddling by external states in the South China Sea and close surveillance by a ‘tiny few’ (read: the US). The White Paper specifically mentions critical security domains, asserting that a ‘traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests’.

To its detractors at the Dialogue, the PLA is practising the art of circumlocution, baffling the audience with slogans normally aimed at a domestic audience. Conversely, US speeches are replete with references to the need for the US Navy to protect freedom of navigation in the air and at sea. However, save from the new presence of the Chinese military in the region, the US has not sufficiently described the possible threats to navigation that would arise in the absence of its own navy.

While the South China Sea will be a focus again at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, the agenda is focused not just on assessing levels of tension throughout the Asia-Pacific but also on efforts to prevent escalation, bring about conflict resolution and build cooperation in the region.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long’s opening address may therefore be a useful opportunity to take stock of how the regional security environment is changing and to reflect on earlier periods of turbulence in the Indo-Pacific. The SLD is also a rare opportunity for the global public to judge how well international leaders are managing Asia’s security during a period of increasing uncertainty.

Shangri-La Dialogue 2015

The 14th IISS Asia Security Summit: Shangri-La Dialogue convenes from 29-31 May in Singapore. For conference proceedings, analysis and videos, visit the Dialogue homepage and on Twitter follow @IISS_org and #SLD15

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