Features | Security

Shangri-La Dialogue: Hints of Stormy Weather Ahead

Behind the surface politeness, the event had more than a few subtle reminders of deep schisms in the Asian security landscape.

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.

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.

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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.

On the other hand, when it came to the topic of missile defense, there were some startling views and differences among delegates – including some frank remarks from a senior U.S. officer that point to the confusion within Washington on what to do about Syria. 

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Other noteworthy utterances came in the opening speech by the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, who struck a note of defiance towards China about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. And in an especially newsworthy, pragmatic and (many would say) forgiving touch, it was notable that he unreservedly welcomed the role of former enemy the United States as a Pacific power.

In contrast, the words of Philippines Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin were strangely subdued. It was extraordinary that he barely even hinted at territorial differences in the South China Sea, even though (or perhaps because) these have recently turned lethal. Here was the perfect opportunity to highlight Manila’s efforts to opt for a rules-based order by appealing to the rule of international law.

How to explain his sadly un-Voltairean reserve? Perhaps it’s because his country is so exceptionally vulnerable to Chinese coercion, to the extent Beijing may choose to exercise it. Perhaps Manila is no longer feeling as emboldened by the U.S. alliance as some allege it has been. Perhaps the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by Philippines forces has left Manila feeling exposed and embarrassed. 

What is certain is that a Chinese delegate took advantage of that incident to single out Manila for criticism in the Shangri-La Dialogue’s working group on maritime issues, alleging that some countries “despite their woefully weak military forces” seem enamored of the use of force. In other interactions recently, I’ve heard Chinese scholars go further and talk of the actions of Philippines forces as “criminal”.

Of course, gatherings like this run the risk of elevating form over substance. Several delegates observed the high theater of Lt Gen Qi, the Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff, who fairly much stood and bowed each time he answered (or more often evaded) a set of questions – to quite considerable if not entirely spontaneous applause. As one high-ranking wit from another delegation remarked to me, it was not unlike something out of Gilbert and Sullivan: crisp uniform, resplendent decorations, great stage presence, impeccable delivery, the very model of a modern major or indeed lieutenant general.

But of course the stage has to be cleverly managed if the key players are to keep returning each year, and high-level Chinese participation is essential.

Where form and substance noticeably met, and significant messages could thus be discerned, was in the deployment of the Chinese delegation. Notably, while a highly impressive female Lieutenant General was assigned to ask public questions of the Vietnamese Prime Minister and the U.S. Secretary of Defense, a mere Lieutenant Colonel posed a question to Japan’s Defense Minister – a blatant belittling unworthy of great-power diplomacy.

To be sure, much of the value of Shangri-La lies in the confidential meetings on the sidelines – leaders, military figures, even intelligence chiefs conferring in twos and threes. Here genuine statecraft is transacted, of the good old secret sort.

 But for the new breed of policy watchers – and twitter (check #IISS_Asia) was a big part of this year’s event – Shangri-La is a valuable vantage point for monitoring the Asian strategic weather. Just remember the rule: the more talk you hear about sunny skies tomorrow, the more you should worry about what lies beyond. 

Rory Medcalf is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on twitter @Rory_Medcalf