The Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference of security officials and experts convened in Singapore by the London-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS), has become the premier Asian defense meeting, the easiest and quickest way to assess the regional zeitgeist on such issues.
This year’s gathering, the 19th, featured the first appearance by China’s defense minister, a welcome addition as geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing intensifies. It is important that the two countries together publicly make their case to regional constituencies. At a time of intense and accelerating change, nothing can be taken for granted.
The tone was set in the keynote speech of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong. He highlighted strains created by the rise of China, noting that “countries have to accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen and that it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening.” He noted that the United States will have the most difficult mental adjustment, but “it is well worth the U.S. forging a new understanding that will integrate China’s aspirations within the current system of rules and norms.”
He rightly underscored that Beijing must use its new power responsibly, however. It should resolve “disputes peacefully in accordance with international law … through diplomacy and compromise rather than force or the threat of force, while giving weight to the core interests and rights of other countries.”
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan echoed Lee’s remarks, urging China to play by the rules of the existing order and warned that the U.S. cannot trust China until it does. He denounced “some in our region” who use a “toolkit of coercion,” which includes island-building and intellectual property theft. Shanahan also used the occasion to announce the release of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, a long overdue explanation of Washington’s thinking about this region.
The report’s first sentence notes that the Indo-Pacific is the Defense Department’s “priority theater,” and then highlights “the unbreakable bonds” of history, culture, commerce and values that the U.S. has with its Indo-Pacific neighbors.
China’s Defense Minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe, took issue with Shanahan’s assertions, insisting that “no matter how strong it becomes, China shall never threaten anyone, seek hegemony or establish spheres of influence.” He defended island-building in the South China Sea as “the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory.” He warned, however, that China would “not let others prey on or divide us,” pointedly noting U.S. support for Taiwan. He blamed rising regional tensions on countries outside the region “who come to flex muscles” and then “walk away and leave a mess behind.”
Other governments fear that they will be forced to take sides in this competition. While virtually all regional governments have benefited from the U.S.-led order, few are willing to defend it publicly if that means risking Beijing’s ire. It is an understandable impulse but carries great risk. Given the stakes, silence is not golden. All regional governments that enjoy peace and prosperity as a result of the existing rules-based order should defend it.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program also figured prominently at the meeting and in discussions. As always, substantive ideas on how to break the deadlock were lacking. In one session, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya shared the stage with South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo (and Federica Mogherini of the European Union) to discuss the issue; Iwaya underscored the importance of cooperation to prevent North Korea’s ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned goods. It is a start, but nothing more.
More important than the public panel was a trilateral meeting between Iwaya, Shanahan and Jeong. They reaffirmed the need for cooperation to deal with North Korea. Unfortunately, however, ill will between Tokyo and Seoul continues to inhibit their bilateral cooperation. While Jeong began the trilateral meeting by announcing his hope for a new relationship in the just-begun Reiwa Era, there is little indication of progress.
The Shangri-La Dialogue’s emergence as the region’s premier security forum rankles some. That a European think tank convenes this meeting prompted China to create and promote the Xiangshan Forum, now in its ninth year, as an alternative, Asian-run platform for defense discussions. It is a revealing that Beijing felt compelled to establish its own forum to ensure that it sets the agenda. It affords another indication of what a Beijing-centered order would look like. Regional observers would do well to compare the two.