Shangri-La Dialogue: Hints of Stormy Weather Ahead
Image Credit: U.S. Secretary of Defense

Shangri-La Dialogue: Hints of Stormy Weather Ahead

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To the untrained ear, the speeches at Indo-Pacific Asia’s largest informal defense gathering last weekend were full of confidence about a peaceful and prosperous future.

But the most important messages of the Shangri-La Dialogue were elsewhere. They could be found among the barbs of etiquette, the clues between the lines, the whispers in the corridors, the things unsaid and the questions unanswered.

And they add up to worrisome news about many aspects of the regional security picture. When key powers the United States, China and Japan are speaking publicly in parallel monologues or defining fundamental strategic challenges in starkly different terms, the whole region clearly has a deep security problem.

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This dialogue, convened in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has rightly cemented a valuable place in the so-called architecture of Asian security diplomacy.

It brings together defense ministers, military chiefs, government officials, experts and journalists in a mix of official and informal discussions, some on the record and some decidedly not.

Cynics might say that it is not a true dialogue, in that the main public elements are based on set-piece speeches, presented and managed in a manner to limit minimize confrontation and controversy.

That is neither fair nor an accurate summation of what really goes on over two intense days each year in the rarefied confines of a grand Singapore hotel. Not only is the event a daunting logistical feat, it adds substance to the globally important debate about Asia’s security future – provided you know how to recognize it.

For a start, the dialogue’s high standards of civility and friendly Asian-style protocol mean that key speakers manage to raise the temperature and seize the headlines with even the slightest note of firmness or concern.

Thus with just one line pointing the finger at China over cyber intrusions, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signaled a key area of US-China tensions ahead of the forthcoming visit to the United States by Xi Jinping.

Likewise, when PLA Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo noted that Chinese warships were patrolling the South and East China seas because they were Chinese “territory”, all his previous words of goodwill and reasonableness suddenly assumed a troubling new context – even allowing for the challenges of simultaneous translation.

And even though Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera was careful not to focus on Tokyo’s military modernization (and issued a kind of apology for wartime aggression), the very fact that his speech referred repeatedly and proudly to a “strong Japan” was something everyone noticed.

What were the biggest surprises of this year’s dialogue? As reported and analyzed elsewhere, one revelation was that China has admitted it has started “reciprocating” U.S. maritime surveillance, a move more stabilizing than it might seem.

On the subject of U.S.-China military tensions, the public sessions of the dialogue were otherwise muted – despite some forthright questioning by U.S. scholar Bonnie Glaser. Presumably senior officials and military folk on both sides were on their best behavior to set the scene for the forthcoming summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, and that was probably a good thing too. And, to be fair, there has been some improvement in China-U.S. maritime security consultations of late, as Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear emphasized.

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