It’s June, and that means a gaggle of defense ministers, officials, and analysts recently flocked to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to hear the United States and its allies bash China. This year did not disappoint. The major difference from some previous years was that China wisely sent a relatively low-level delegation to hear their country’s policies and actions be criticized.
Lost in the bluster and bravado were fundamental questions regarding the strategic future of Asia.
The United States, Japan, and Australia seemed to be reading from the same script. They excoriated China for unilateral actions incompatible with the “rules-based order”; militarizing disputed features in the South China Sea; bullying and showing “contempt” for its neighbors; and being an implied threat to “freedom of navigation.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, in obvious reference to China, “We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims. We cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo.” But he did not define the “status quo” nor say if and how the United States would roll back the changes China and others — including the United States– have made to it.
Perhaps his most controversial remark — at least for China — was his reference to the steadfast U.S. commitment to “working with Taiwan… to provide the defense articles necessary.” Given the bellicose context of his remarks, China may interpret this as a signal that the United States is preparing to strengthen defense ties with Taiwan and that another arms sale to it is in the works.
Meanwhile, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull asserted – again with clear reference to China – that “maintaining the rule of law in our region, respecting the sovereignty of nations large and small is the key to continued peace and stability.” Australia’s Defense Minister Marise Payne emphasized Australia’s support for the Hague South China Sea arbitration decision, which went heavily against China. Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada echoed that sentiment and added, “In the East and South China Seas, we continue to witness unprovoked, unilateral attempts to alter the status quo based on assertions incompatible with existing international norms.”
Predictably, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying fired back, calling the remarks by Mattis and Inada “irresponsible” and expressing “strong dissatisfaction” with them.
So the Shangri-La Dialogue has once again come and gone. Rather than achieving its stated goal of “building confidence,” the exchanges seemed to have exacerbated relations between China and the United States and its allies. Worse, the Dialogue failed to raise or address fundamental questions regarding the geopolitical situation in the region.
It is clear that the strategic order in the region is changing – and post haste. U.S. primacy is waning and China’s role in shaping its future is swiftly waxing. Failure to acknowledge this and its implications prevents formulation of a collective response to managing this power transition peacefully while preserving the core interests of all.
Some of these fundamental questions follow.
What exactly is it that the United States and its allies fear about China’s primacy in Asia? Of course, the United States, like any great power, wants to maintain its dominance for as long as possible — for national pride if nothing else. But are there other, deeper reasons that are sufficient to incur the huge costs and risks of maintaining U.S. hegemony in Asia? Some argue that given China’s enormous human resources, geographic contiguity, and ongoing economic “miracle,” it will be impossible for the United States to constrain it indefinitely. As Australian analyst Hugh White writes, the United States wants to “maintain an open, liberal economic order and to preserve the territorial and political security of its regional allies.” China’s dependence on maritime trade through the South China Sea and its “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” do not mean that it wants to drastically change the region’s economic regime, from which it is clearly benefiting. Of course, China, like any large power, wants to control its near seas — for its own defense. But this does not necessarily mean that China will threaten the core territorial integrity of U.S. allies.
However, if that is what U.S. decision makers have concluded, then military confrontation is necessary sooner rather than later, and these Dialogues are futile. But if that is not what they think – or they are not sure — then the question becomes how can the interests of all be accommodated peacefully, or with a minimum of friction and “losers”? The United States seems to think China’s entry into its dominated international order can be managed or guided by the use of U.S. soft and if necessary hard power. The problem is that so far it doesn’t seem to have been very successful in doing so. Indeed some of China’s policies and actions in the South China and East China Seas seem totally out of sync with that existing order. Is the United States sticking its head in the sand or whistling by the graveyard? Denying reality is dangerous.
Take the recent Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) targeting Chinese occupied and claimed Mischief Reef. As Hugh White asked recently in an article in War on the Rocks, was its purpose to demonstrate the U.S. position on legal issues? Or was it to deter and roll back China’s strategic challenge there?
If the FONOP was meant to make a legal point, it was successful in a muted manner in challenging any Chinese claim to a territorial sea around Mischief Reef and thus indirectly China’s claim to sovereignty over that feature. But if it was meant to demonstrate U.S. resolve to maintain its dominance in the region and roll back China’s strategic gains, it was a failure — like the FONOPs before it.
Indeed, the United States has not been able to deter China from occupying, building, and “militarizing” features in the South China Sea. Instead it has generally avoided military confrontation. This is understandable because that could quickly escalate to broader conflict, and neither Washington nor the U.S. public seem to have the moxie for the risks that would entail. Indeed, the fundamental question is whether or not the United States and its public are really ready to risk a “war to end all wars” for theoretical and hypothetical threats to freedom of navigation and to the resources and sovereignty over flyspecks claimed by some Southeast Asian countries in that Sea?
Other fundamental questions relate to the security policy of U.S. allies. Turnbull said that choosing between Beijing and Washington is “an utterly false choice. We have a good friend and partner in Beijing, steadfast friend and allies in Washington. Nothing constrains us in our dealings with the other.” These are brave words. But as tension between China and the United States ratchets up, is Australia able and willing to forge a security and foreign policy vis a vis China that is truly independent of its alliance with Washington? If so, what is that policy likely to look like?
Likewise, is Japan and its public willing to risk conflict with China over its actions and policies in the South China Sea? What exactly is at stake there for Japan, other than a hypothetical threat to freedom of navigation and the U.S. request to back it up? Is ASEAN centrality in the security of the region a myth never to be attained? If not, how can it be realized in practice – beyond providing a platform for talk shops?
These are the types of questions that should be raised and addressed at gathering likes the Shangri-La Dialogue. By not doing so, current trends are likely to continue until it is too late to avoid confrontation and conflict.
This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.