Francesco Mancini
18 Jun 2019
The failure of the main Asian-Pacific players to reassure the region about the future of their relationship was the main takeaway from this year's edition of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. For Asia, the implications of the tensions between the United States and China over the coming years are significant, with a now-familiar pattern of confrontation set to continue.

The increased dominance of China

Unsurprisingly, some of the main themes of the past years did not take central stage. Among the most striking change was a lack of any substantial reference to the South China Sea. In the past Southeast Asian nations in particular have vocally insisted the world would never accept China’s military build-up there as a fait-accompli.

In 2019 it looked as if the world had changed its mind.

It was only a few years ago that most discussion was taken up with United States President Donald Trump’s America First policy and its likely impact on regional allies. In 2017, then US Defence Secretary General James Mattis did a good job of reassuring the audience US posture towards Asia would remain firmly rooted in history. Whatever the rhetorical flourishes or social media outbursts of its new president, the US remained, at heart, an Asia-Pacific power that would continue its positive engagement there.

This year, with General Mattis gone, his former deputy and acting replacement Patrick Shanahan seemed unable to reproduce the same sense of authority.

Speaking again of the enduring US commitment to Asia, he emphasised the size of its military capability on the one hand, together with the opportunities for peaceful competition, engagement and cooperation on the other. But his attempt to downplay the threat of a trade war between the US and China fell flat and his overall message was undermined by the Pentagon’s release of its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, at the same time of the Dialogue. Although much of the language contained in this document mirrors Acting Secretary Shanahan’s speech, its tone towards China is much harsher.

Where Acting Secretary Shanahan spoke of dialogue and alignment with a country whose economy was largely built on established rules and norms, the report sees a rising, coercive power bent on establishing “global pre-eminence”. Alongside Russia, it characterises China as a potentially malign actor capable of threatening peace and stability in the region.

Conversely, the report also touches on America’s new BUILD development financing Act. Acting Secretary Shanahan was at pains to underline the Congressional backing secured for substantial funding necessary to activate this program, together with that needed to fulfill broader aims of the Strategy itself.

But it is fair to say the latter currently appear mainly security related in scope and, without a substantial economic engagement dimension, the Indo-Pacific Strategy will surely fail.

Is the Indo-Pacific strategy relevant?

Australia, Japan and particularly France spoke up in its support during the SLD, while Russia and China have characterised it as a crude containment strategy. From an SLD audience point of view, however, the basic concept is still one that struggles to gain traction. This is a forum primarily concerned with the Asia Pacific, where South Asian affairs have not traditionally played a central role.

That feeling of disengagement was not helped by the absence this year of a senior Indian government representative. This was due to the Indian election cycle but it contrasted sharply with last year’s celebrated appearance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and contributed to the overall sense that the Pentagon’s Strategy document has generated more questions than answers.

If it offers something more to Asia Pacific nations than what is already on the table, it is not yet clear what. This atmosphere of uncertainty left space for others to fill and, as the first ranking figure to attend in eight years, China’s Minister of National Defence General Wei Fenghe stepped firmly into the void.

The consensus was that Acting Secretary Shanahan and General Wei seemed to describe two parallel worlds but it was General Wei who emerged the star of the show.

Where Acting Secretary Shanahan spoke in general terms of opportunity and engagement, balanced by military strength, General Wei did not shrink from specifics, giving a robust defence of China’s ambitions, including reunification with Taiwan, while clearly stating its claim to peaceful co-existence and non-interference in the affairs of other nations.

It was pleasing to see some level of accord on the question of North Korea but the net result of both speeches was to confirm suspicions that a trajectory of confrontation between China and the US appears certain to linger in the foreseeable future.

Singapore shows leadership

All of which served to underline the welcome leadership role played by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who emerged as a powerful voice for Southeast Asian nations, once-again squeezed between big-power rivalry.

In a candid keynote that was extremely well received within and beyond the walls of the Shangri-La Hotel, Prime Minister Lee spoke eloquently about the anxieties and challenges of smaller countries in the region. But he also articulated a positive strategy of regional integration and engagement through multilateral institutions such as ASEAN, building safeguards against the arbitrary exercise of power by bigger nations.

And, crucially, he identified the one thing that will do more than any other to prevent conflict and promote peaceful cooperation: economic growth.

Championing the role of inclusive free trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Prime Minister Lee pointed to a way forward for all who wish to see prosperity win out over strife.

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