Thorny waters


thorny-watersShangri la Dialogue witnesses sharp exchanges as countries get restive over Chinese belligerence

Over last decade, Asia pacific has emerged as the crucial chessboard of geopolitics. As invariably happens, the  region which has seen unmatched wealth generation during last quarter century, has gradually assumed security importance for countries not just located here, but also those who have maintained strong presence here ever since the end of the second world war. The geopolitical and security firmament which was underpinned by the American hegemony in the region and its hub and spokes system of allies has started to come under threat in the wake of the changing economic fortunes in the region.

Buoyed by the economic success of last couple decades which has obviously had its benign impact on its military capability, China has increasingly asserted itself in the region with a vision to challenge the American supremacy in the Western Pacific and to control the crucial South China Sea and East China Sea theaters. Not only has it shown willingness to engage militarily with countries with whom it has territorial disputes, it has also of late changed the facts on ground by altering the geographical features of some islets with clear intent to use them for military purposes.

Needless to say, other countries in the region have felt threatened by such belligerence and have been looking at outside powers, primarily the US to maintain the status quo that China so deliberately wants to change in its favor. Even as the US ponders on how to effectively put in place its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, the global attention has firmly focused on the region to see how the game develops in the region and what it implies for the rest of the world. It is also important because the region is witnessing the emergence of some of the most ambitious trading arrangements which would require a stable and predictable security environment to succeed.

In wake of these developments, the annual Shangri-La Dialogue which is organized by London based independent think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore, has become increasingly crucial as it tests the mood of the leading stakeholders on the various traditional and non-traditional security related issues of the region. The dialogue which started in 2002 as an “unofficial defense summit” has in last half decade emerged as a powerful “Track One” intergovernmental security forum,  attended  by defense ministers and military chiefs of most states in the region and key powers from the rest of the world. What makes it special is the fact that it has representations from US, China and most others with whom China has a territorial dispute, in South as well East China Seas.

This year, the event was held in the shadow of two crucial developments. First, the Chinese and Americans have come too close to comfort in South China Sea of late. While the US has sent its ships near some of the disputed islands in the region which is international waters, the Chinese have increasingly teased American ships and warplanes while maintaining its claim on most of South China Sea. Second, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that has been asked by Manila to rule on the validity of Beijing’s nine-dash line under The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is expected to sentence its ruling in near future. China, apparently sensing its defeat, has indicated that it may exit the Convention should the rulings go against it.

It is in this environment that the dialogue of this year was held during June 3-5 at the Shangri-La hotel, from where it derives its name. Attended by over 600 delegates including 30 ministers from 35 countries, the summit was tracked closely by analysts trying to figure out the relative positions of leading players on volatile disputes in both South China Sea and East China Sea. Also the broad stance and vision of countries like US, China and Japan on the Western Pacific was to be seen.

As was expected, the event was dominated by the American and Chinese deliberations. Speaking on the second day of the event, the US Defense Secretary Ash Carter made a strong pitch for principled development of the region and requested the countries in the Asia Pacific region to come together to build a “principled security network” based on bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral partnerships advancing shared values. He said that the US welcomed the emergence of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China that plays a responsible role in the region’s principled security network. However, he said that there is growing anxiety in this region about China’s activities on the seas, in cyberspace, and in the region’s airspace, and warned that China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.

thorny-waters2China, represented by its deputy chief of Joint Staff Department of  China’s Central Military Commission, Admiral Sun Jianguo, made a strong retort even as speakers from many countries alluded to Chinese intransigence in South China Sea. In a speech themed “Strengthen Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation and Promote Regional Security Governance”, Admiral Sun said that China advocates a new security outlook, featuring inclusive, shared and win-win security cooperation. Rejecting Carter’s assertion, he stated that “We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now and we will not be isolated in the future.” In a jibe apparently directed at the US, he asserted “We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble.”

In recent past, a sense of insecurity has prevailed upon smaller countries in Southeast Asia. They feel that the commitment of the US to get boots on the ground in the local conflicts, in which it may not have direct stake, has declined over the years. Americans have been at pains to allay such fears and Carter tried to do the same when he spoke of the fact that US was putting its most advanced assets in the region. He also asserted that the US will remain, for decades, the primary provider of regional security and a leading contributor to the region’s principled security network. The seriousness of the assertion and the intent of the US to convince its allies can only be gauged from the fact that a few days ago, it has sent two aircraft carriers to Philippines on a joint exercise, which is quite rare.

Another important development from India’s perspective was that the Indian Defense Minister participated in the dialogue after a gap of few years. It also had its first bilateral strategic defense dialogue with Singapore on the sidelines of the summit. With its Act East focus, India has started to take such summits seriously. Also, more than a dozen intelligence chiefs from the Asia-Pacific countries, including CIA Director John Brennan met separately to discuss issues of common concern. This happened even as many speakers spoke of terrorism as a major threat to the regional security.