Week in Review

US olive branch pushed away by China

At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the spectre of US-China conflict loomed over proceedings. Anxiety initially soothed by an almost-conciliatory tone from the US was ramped up again by a pugnacious response from China, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took all of two sentences to address the elephant no-one could ignore in the glittering ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel.

“Our world is at a turning point. Globalisation is under siege. Tensions between the US and China are growing. Like everyone else, we in Singapore are anxious.”

“We see it in trade wars, tech wars, currency wars, wars of words, and the occasional brush between two aircraft or two ships. This is only the beginning.”

That anxiety seemed to permeate through the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, as defence ministers, military leaders and government officials from an array of Asia-Pacific countries gathered to discuss the geostrategic issues and undercurrents running through the region.

Given Singapore’s geographic proximity to China and close ties to the US, it is unsurprising that Lee may be feeling squeezed from both sides, but it was also apparent in the views of many others who spoke at the event.

The stakes at play were perhaps put most compellingly by French Defence Minister Florence Parly, who cuttingly observed: “It takes no Kissinger to see the building blocks of a global confrontation taking shape here in Asia.”

“We see it in trade wars, tech wars, currency wars, wars of words, and the occasional brush between two aircraft or two ships. This is only the beginning.”

France had recently finished its Indo-Pacific strategy, said Parly, with its assessment of the dynamics in the region “not particularly uplifting”: the recession of multilateralism, the wane of sovereign equality and non-interference, and a shrinking geostrategic space “where frictions will happen faster and more often”.

Going into Shangri-La, there was a heightened sense of anticipation around the address from US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, with an expectation that some meat would finally be put on the bones of the country’s much-hyped “Indo-Pacific strategy”.

Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Photo: Supplied/IISS.

Yet Nick Bisley, the head of humanities and social sciences at LaTrobe University in Australia, noted to Newsroom that Shanahan’s speech came “completely out of the middle of American defence policy and Asia policy”.

“If you’d just read it without names attached and said, ‘Identify which government gave this speech’, you’d go, ‘No it’s not Trump, maybe it’s Obama, maybe it’s Bush’.”

There was what Bisley described as an almost conciliatory tone, with Shanahan speaking of his time working at Boeing as an example of how there could be competition without conflict.

“China was our biggest customer and our biggest competitor, so we have to understand how to live in that reality.”

Of course, there were some requisite digs at China’s militarisation of disputed territories in the South China Sea and its theft of intellectual property – but often not directly, with Shanahan instead making veiled references to the behaviour of “some” countries in the region.

David Capie, the director of Victoria University of Wellington's Centre for Strategic Studies, noted the challenge for any US Secretary of Defense coming to Shangri-La was to strike a fine balance in their rhetoric.

“Sometimes when they come here and talk about fire and thunder, they’re accused of driving up the temperature and if they come here and are more restrained, it seems they’re not being resilient enough, they’re not credible.”

A pugnacious Chinese defence

Where Shanahan was in some respects surprisingly restrained, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe offered up what Bisley described as a “really spiky, kind of pugnacious defence of China’s core interests”.

“If the US wants to talk, we will keep the door open – if the US wants to fight, we will fight to the end.”

Wei, the first Chinese minister to attend Shangri-La in nearly a decade, was unrepentant as he defended China’s activities in the South China Sea and criticised what he said were “people who try to make profits by stirring up trouble in the region”.

Of a potential trade war, he offered: “If the US wants to talk, we will keep the door open – if the US wants to fight, we will fight to the end.”

Pressed during a question and answer session on the detention camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, Wei pointed simply to the improved incomes and the lack of any terror attacks.

“With such sound economic development, how can we not say Xinjiang is developing in such a good fashion?”

A question about the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre this week was also brushed off: “How can we say China didn’t manage the Tiananmen incident properly?...that incident was political turbulence, and the central government took measures to stop the political turbulence.”

Capie described it as: “the speech of a minister of a country that’s feeling confident about its position in the region” – not necessarily a confidence shared by others.

“It was confident, robust, but I don’t think that’s going to translate into having won anybody over here. Nobody would have bought the idea that China hasn’t invaded any countries in its history – I mean that would be news to the Vietnamese and the Indians and others.”

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned the “rigidity” of Wei’s approach, noting that he had done nothing to grasp the olive branch of sorts extended by Shanahan and questioning whether the concerns raised about Chinese actions in the Asia-Pacific would be heard in Beijing.

“It’s good that the Chinese are coming here and that they listen, but given the way that the decisions are being made now in China, the opportunities for the messaging here to get back to Xi Jinping are probably virtually none, so it’s very difficult to get the top guy to hear what the concerns are of the outside world.”

It is that apparent unwillingness of both China and the US to listen to regional critiques that Bisley said most concerned many at Shangri-La.

“There are two quite different visions for the region and they’re not compatible, and unless there’s movement - and what we saw over the weekend is there’s going to be no movement from either side - something’s going to have to give.”

That anxiety referred to by Lee may have increased, rather than decreased, over the weekend, he said.

“I don’t think you sit there and go, Christ we’re on the brink of a war, that the temperature’s really being ratcheted up, but the lines that have been laid down are clear, they’re hard, and there’s a real kind of incompatibility between what the PRC wants and what the US and some of its allies want.”

Sam Sachdeva attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore thanks to a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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