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Shangri-La Dialogue 2019: averting Asia’s wreckage


Shangri-La Dialogue 2019: averting Asia’s wreckage


The 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue reaffirmed the ongoing US-China strategic discord and revealed the rising initiatives among smaller Asian powers to preserve peace and stability in the region.


– This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue represented the first major acknowledgement among Asia’s smaller powers that the trajectory of the US-China relationship is worsening
– Instead of reassuring Asia’s smaller powers, Washington and Beijing used the dialogue to promote their opposing strategic visions for regional order
– Asia’s smaller powers, unwilling to take sides, have taken independent initiatives to reinforce regional peace and stability

The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue is a key regional summit that brings together senior defence officials of 28 Asia-Pacific countries to debate Asia’s pressing security challenges. In this regard, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his opening address on May 31, offered a sober diagnosis of the state of regional affairs. He recounted the history of great power rivalries and framed this year’s dialogue in relation to the growing US-China strategic competition.

Lee’s speech was timely in highlighting the hardening of domestic views in Washington and Beijing, which has set off an increasingly zero-sum dynamic where each seeks to pin the other down and where neither wants to appear weak. Lee suggested that the fundamental problem is “a mutual lack of strategic trust,” which “bodes ill for any compromise or peaceful accommodation.”

However, his hope that both major powers “find a constructive way forward” — that the US adapt to the ‘new reality’ of China’s rise and that China convinces the world through its actions that it is an enlightened and responsible stake-holder — is unlikely to be fulfilled. The subsequent keynote addresses by US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe reaffirmed the zero-sum dynamic by attempting to split Asia between two opposing strategic visions.


Photo: IISS News (@IISS_org)/Twitter

Shanahan’s speech was a continuity of what US Vice President Mike Pence said about China at the Hudson Institute in October 2018 and at the APEC Summit the following month. But Washington’s rhetoric is now much more articulated: Shanahan described China’s regional conduct as a “toolkit of coercion.” He claimed that should the trend persist, “artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths,” which implies that countries would have to pay or defer to China’s interests in order to maintain access to the South China Sea.

Shanahan also contrasted Beijing’s coercive behaviour with Washington’s package: the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy. In promoting the US as “a Pacific Nation… a resident power, with deep economic, cultural and personal connections that inextricably link us with the growth and vitality of the world’s most dynamic region,” Shanahan reassured allies and partners that the US will not withdraw from Asia.

But how exactly the strategy will be operationalised, how it differs from Obama’s Pivot, what ‘free’ and ‘open’ actually mean and where smaller Asian countries fit in remains unclear. The latter two issues are especially problematic, given that Shanahan denounced China without consistently condemning the assertive conduct of other dispute parties in the South China Sea. It would also be strategically incoherent to forward the FOIP without addressing the Trump administration’s tendency to treat allies and enemies alike. For example, Washington recently announced that it will monitor and potentially sanction countries that manipulate currencies for unfair trade advantage, including allies and partners. While Shanahan’s speech suggests a will from Washington to reinforce the credibility of its commitment as Asia’s security guarantor, he failed to clarify and relate the means to ends.

Shanahan seemed to promote a regional vision at the expense of China’s interests. He noted that the FOIP is based on the principles of internationally-accepted norms⁠, which implies that the US, unlike China, is on the inclusive side of the rules-based order. He also suggested that Washington is willing to cooperate with Beijing but under the condition that Beijing first revises its “behaviour that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions… Until it does, we stand against a myopic, narrow and parochial view of the future.” This implies an exclusive regional order, one that China would find too demanding to accommodate.


Photo: IISS News (@IISS_org)/Twitter

General Wei Fenghe remained unapologetic about China’s behaviour. June Teufel Dreyer from the Foreign Policy Research Institute describes Wei as having “laid out Manichean choices between openness and inclusiveness versus isolation and exclusiveness… leaving no doubt that he thought China favo[u]red the former and the United States the latter.” In particular, Wei defended China’s defence spending as “reasonable and appropriate,” viewed China’s conduct in regards to the South China Sea, Taiwan, Huawei and Xinjiang as entirely defensive and legitimate, vowed to “fight until the end” in the US-China trade war, and reaffirmed “no promise to renounce the use of force” in reunifying Taiwan.

Wei viewed the US as a regional spoiler, willing to “intervene in regional affairs, make troubles, walk away and leave a mess behind.” He also spoke of “an Asia-Pacific community with a shared future,” which raises further questions as to where the US would fit in or how it would differ from Xi Jinping’s earlier ‘Asia for Asians’ narrative in 2014. As the first high-level Chinese representative to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue since 2011, Wei’s words carry weight and imply a high level of confidence in Beijing about China’s behaviour and the trajectory of China’s rise.

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Shanahan and Wei thus presented a contest of strategic visions for Asia and their perceptions of each other. In their visions, each sees itself as a victim and the other as the aggressor; each overstates its actions as defensive and legitimate and the other as offensive and illegitimate; each stares down on the other in order not to appear irresolute; and each wants Asia’s smaller powers to join their bloc at the exclusion of the other.

Although both speakers discussed the possibility of cooperation and accommodation, moderated the tone of their criticisms by not specifically naming each other and rejected the inevitability of a “face-off” and the ‘clash of civilisations’ discourse, the diplo-speak was transparent. The Shangri-La Dialogue also coincided with other international events, such as the recent failure in trade talks, Washington’s release of the FOIP Strategy Report, the Tiananmen anniversary and announcement of the South China Sea military exercise, which could have led to Shanahan’s and Wei’s tendency for bellicosity. But given the fundamental nature of US-China strategic discord, their opposing strategic narratives are unlikely to subside. The dilemma is that both powers want to avoid confrontation but neither wants to compromise.

Shanahan’s and Wei’s remarks confirmed Prime Minister Lee’s worst fears that Asia is now entering “a prolonged period of strategic tension and uncertainty.” However, it may not be as “extremely damaging” as Lee believes. Asia’s smaller powers remain reluctant to choose between the US and China and have no appetite for a “new Cold War” in Asia, as Lee’s speech made clear. The Philippines’ defence secretary also warned that ASEAN’s “greatest fear” was to have the US and China “sleepwalking into another international conflict,” while Malaysia’s defence minister noted that “We love America. But we also love China.”

Instead of taking sides, Asia’s smaller powers have now increasingly taken their own initiatives to forge an inclusive regional order, speak out and enforce security and stability. The annual Shangri-La Dialogue is itself testament of the endurance of ASEAN’s centrality. Asia’s smaller powers have united to advance the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership despite Washington’s withdrawal from the earlier TPP. The European Union’s trade agreements with Japan and ASEAN also signalled an attempt to preserve Asia’s multilateralism amidst US-China rivalry. Japan has further sought rapprochement with China amidst the uncertainty over the Trump administration’s reliability as allies. Both the British and French defence ministers, too, have seemingly sought to reassure China that their maritime operations in the South China Sea are forces for stability without specifically mentioning the US.

These separate acts are unlikely to dampen the US-China strategic discord, but collectively they could influence the conduct of Washington and Beijing from a preference for strong-arming to a greater willingness to accommodate. This does not mean Asia’s stormy future will necessarily be avoided. Rather, it now hinges increasingly on Asia’s smaller powers to restrain the US and China and preserve an inclusive order that is stable for prosperity and peace.

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