Asia Defense

2019 Shangri-La Dialogue: US-China Divide Lingers Amid Asia’s Anxiety

The dynamics at play at Asia’s premier security summit only reinforced existing regional worries that the divisions between Washington and Beijing are set to endure.

2019 Shangri-La Dialogue: US-China Divide Lingers Amid Asia’s Anxiety
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore

As had been expected, the 2019 iteration of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) that took place this weekend in Singapore was dominated by the subject of heightening U.S.-China competition, which has been a source of deep regional anxiety in the Asia-Pacific over the past few months. While SLD 2019 spotlighted some of the dynamics within the U.S.-China relationship, it unsurprisingly did not provide much in the way of reassurance about the future trajectory of the relationship and only reinforced the sense that competition between the two powers is likely to linger thereafter.

As I noted ahead of SLD 2019, while the headlines going into the summit had been focused on individual manifestations of U.S.-China relations – be it U.S. government actions on Huawei or the prospect of a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 in Japan in June – they obscured a bigger picture where, over the past year, increasing U.S.-China tensions, which date back to the 2010s, have been gradually concretizing into what increasingly looks for now like a longer-term U.S.-China competition as initially outlined in recent U.S. national security documents such as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. Unsurprisingly, that has triggered regional anxiety about not just aspects of the current fallout, be it the so-called trade war or saber-rattling on the South China Sea, but also the broader question about whether the region is headed into a return to major power rivalry last seen during the Cold War.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s keynote address that kicked off SLD 2019 – parts of which were subsequently cited or echoed by participants and other speakers through the weekend – captured the regional anxiety well, noting that while both China and the United States could still make a series of adjustments to accommodate each other’s interests to ensure that heightened competition would not give way to conflict, the recent hardening of attitudes on the part of both sides as well as the lingering trust deficit between them suggested that the international community was headed for “a more divided and troubled world”. It followed a series of rather grim statements that Lee has been making on this front, including one last year where he indicated that if such heightened U.S.-China competition were to continue, Southeast Asian states may increasingly be forced to choose between the United States and China, a point on which I subsequently elaborated on.

Unsurprisingly, there was little about the conduct of both United States and China at the SLD itself that offered much reassurance regarding this regional anxiety. On the U.S. side, while Shanahan did have a noticeably restrained note on China in his inaugural SLD address, the tougher line in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) itself, which was rolled out simultaneously, reinforced the policy continuity in the Pentagon’s approach towards China. On the Chinese side, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe’s debut at the SLD too expectedly followed traditional lines substance-wise – leading with a series of stark choices for the region and restating China’s historical involvement in the region and its core interests on issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea – albeit with a shift to a lighter tone once he engaged with participant questions. And while Shanahan and Wei did meet at the SLD, the differing accounts both provided about how the meeting in their public remarks only served to underline the gulf that remained between them.

With the SLD now concluded, the attention will shift to other landmark events that may reveal the extent of continuity and change on U.S.-China relations both within and beyond the defense side through the rest of 2019 and into 2020. These include not just interactions between Washington and Beijing, including the next meeting between Trump and Xi, but also the evolution of U.S.-China ties in particular areas –  be it fifth generation (5G) technology or the South China Sea – other key meetings including the next round of ASEAN-led Asian summitry and China’s own Xiangshan Forum later this year, and domestic developments in both countries such as the runup to the 2020 U.S. elections due next November, where it will become clearer whether the region will be contending with a second Trump administration for the next few years or a new leader in office that could potentially shift Washington’s approach to Asia to some degree.

But even as the headlines may focus on short-term adjustments both sides can or cannot make, it will be important to keep in mind that this is only one measure of the evolving dynamics in the much bigger and consequential question: whether the United States and China can find ways to manage their relationship amid growing pressures and major changes that are affecting how they view themselves, each other, and the world. The past record of evolving relations between established and rising powers suggests that this process will take much longer to play out, and that, while these powers will no doubt have the most say in how their ties advance, other smaller, regional states will have an important say as well rather than being just pawns amid major power competition.