SINGAPORE – When U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke at a key Asian security summit over the weekend, he used the word “principled” 38 times, floating his vision of a U.S.-backed “security network” of countries in the region.
Several delegations were quick to respond to the idea at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but it seemed to evolve into a form of diplomatic tag-team wrestling as a loose coalition of nations lined up to criticize China.
Nations including Japan, India, France and Vietnam joined calls for greater respect for international law to resolve the worsening territorial tensions in the South China Sea, a dig at Beijing, which has said it will not accept any ruling by a U.N.-backed court on the dispute.
Chinese officials, meanwhile, stressed Beijing’s commitment to being a peaceful, lawful and inclusive nation, but said it would not be bullied.
“No one has the right to point their fingers at China,” said Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the joint staff department of China’s Central Military Commission, as he faced a string of questions during a public forum at the summit on Sunday. “Belligerence does not make peace.”
Sun was sharing a podium with Vietnamese Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh, who said he was cutting short his own responses to allow his Chinese counterpart more time to rebut criticism of Beijing.
Concern with China’s assertiveness over the vital trade route has been deepening, several envoys said on the sidelines of the summit, particularly given the prospect of Chinese military facilities on new artificial islands built on reefs.
Those concerns are forcing countries in the region to band closer together to find new ways of standing up to Beijing.
Carter’s urging of greater regional efforts, particularly from China, to create his “principled security network” was underpinned by warnings that China risked isolating itself by its actions “on the seas, in cyberspace and in the region’s airspace.”
Many militaries in the region, he said, are working closer together, both among themselves and with the United Sates.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said Japan will seek to participate annually in naval exercises together with the United States and India, similar to drills due to take place off Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, later this week.
“It is very meaningful from the standpoint of securing safety in the wide area of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, for Japan, the United States and India to cooperate on security and defense areas and to conduct training,” Nakatani said.
Carter’s warnings that China faces a looming “Great Wall of isolation” were rejected by Chinese officials, but some analysts said that an “us versus them” divide may suit Beijing in current circumstances.
“It might sound tough talk, but my worry is that China’s leaders will simply welcome that kind of view,” said Lee Chung-min, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“If its economy slows, China’s leaders might welcome the chance for the isolationist talk to stir some domestic nationalism.”
Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of China’s Academy of Military Science, a prominent figure during the weekend sessions, acknowledged perceptions that some nations might be “ganging up” on China but said this did not represent “objective reality.”
“The South China Sea is not the only security issue in the region, and events like this one are not quite full reality,” she said. “Each nation has to think of its bilateral relations with China as well, and many other security issues, that pull us closer together.”
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, made clear that while the U.S. military is attempting to engage and cooperate with China’s rapidly modernizing military, it is prepared for a darker outcome.
“The bottom line is this: We want to cooperate where we can, but we just have to be ready as a military to confront them if we must,” he said.
Malaysia’s defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, spelled out the costs to smaller regional countries if great power rivalries escalate.
Whatever happens between major powers must not “leave us on the beach when the tide goes out,” he said.