‘Indo-Pacific’ pushes ahead at Shangri-La

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is a chance for Asia-Pacific countries to discuss the region's major security challenges. David Capie attended the summit and says the rise of the "Indo-Pacific", tension between Washington and Beijing, and hints about changes to New Zealand's defence policy were among his takeaways.

Defence Minister Ron Mark had a front row seat from which to view Asia’s increasingly fractious geopolitics as he attended the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend. Shangri-La, billed as “Asia’s premier security conference”, brought together 40 defence ministers, and hundreds of senior military officers and defence officials for two days of intensive discussions.

This year’s event was in some ways “the summit before the summit”, coming just days before US President Donald Trump is due to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un just down the road in Sentosa. Perhaps because of that, North Korea featured less prominently than might otherwise have been expected. Instead, much of the attention was on increasingly sharp ties between Washington and Beijing, and new ways of thinking about the region’s contested strategic geography.

Chief among these ideas is the notion of the “Indo-Pacific”. For its exponents, the Indo-Pacific highlights the fact that the Indian and Pacific oceans form a single strategic space and underscores the growing importance of India as a player in Asia’s regional security agenda.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticised the Indo-Pacific as a “headline grabbing exercise” that would soon fade “like foam in the sea”.

The conference opened with a keynote address from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was only too happy to soak up the attention being given to India’s heightened role in wider regional security. Japan has been pressing its own idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, and the Trump administration’s new attachment to the concept was given added impetus by last week’s announcement that US Pacific Command (PACOM) will change its name to Indo-Pacific Command.

For sceptics in Southeast Asia, however, the term raises concerns. Some fear it might sideline the Associate of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which likes to think it sits at the heart of regional cooperation. From Beijing, the Indo-Pacific and growing ties between India, Australia, the United States and Japan - in particular the nascent “Quad” military relationship - looks a lot like a new containment. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticised the Indo-Pacific as a “headline grabbing exercise” that would soon fade “like foam in the sea”.

US-China tensions to the fore

Doubtless aware that many states in Southeast Asia are hesitant to endorse anything that might mean confrontation with Beijing, the Quad was largely absent from Shangri-La’s main speeches. Mattis extolled the virtues of the Indo-Pacific, but when questioned about the lack of reference to the Quad in his speech, said he’d dropped a reference to it to save time. Both Modi and Mattis went out of their way to make soothing noises about the importance of ASEAN, and to deny that the Indo-Pacific required states to align against China.

Assurances notwithstanding, Shangri-La also highlighted the increasingly confrontational relationship between Washington and Beijing and the shrinking space for others to navigate between them. In his remarks, Mattis said: “If you'd asked me two months ago, I'd have said we are still attempting to maintain a cooperative stance with [China], but that’s clearly no longer the case.” He said China’s ongoing actions in the South China Sea amounted to “intimidation and coercion”, and that has consequences - including the cancellation of its invitation to the annual RIMPAC exercise off Hawaii.

The Chinese response was more muted than in previous years. The official delegation from Beijing was small, and there were notably few Chinese think-tankers and academics present. Despite that, the Chinese didn’t miss the chance to push back in the panel discussions, rejecting claims Beijing had militarised the South China Sea, condemning US freedom of navigation operations, and making hay about the Trump administration’s latest tariffs.

While concerns about China’s trajectory were certainly one of the unifying themes, most were just as alarmed by growing American protectionism and increasingly doubtful about the reliability of US commitments. In his closing remarks, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen criticised both Washington and Beijing for using “core security considerations to justify…deviations from global norms”.

Mark pushes NZDF's Pacific, climate change focus

That brings us to Mark’s speech, which focused largely on suggesting some worthy principles for managing competition in regional security affairs. But perhaps of more interest to a New Zealand audience were the clues he offered about what we might see in the Government’s strategic defence policy statement, set to be released within weeks.

Mark opened by describing an “increasingly complex and challenging” strategic environment, in which “the international rules-based order is coming under significant pressure”. This pressure, he said, was the result of geo-strategic competition, including efforts by “some states to pursue greater influence over others in ways that challenge international norms and at times the sovereignty of smaller states.” We can expect a much more pessimistic assessment of the strategic environment than we saw in the 2016 Defence White Paper.

Secondly, Mark confirmed the new defence policy would give more attention to the Pacific, echoing the Government’s Pacific reset and reinforcing the importance of the NZDF’s neighbourhood work “stretching from the South Pole to the Equator”. While Mark said the policy would “reiterate New Zealand’s long-standing commitment to contributing to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific and further afield”, quite how it reconciles the trade-offs between tasks closer to home and in the wider region will be interesting to see.

With the Greens critical of defence spending and wary of NZDF deployments, climate change could be the glue that holds the coalition’s defence policy together.

Finally, Mark’s speech included two words you won’t find anywhere in the last White Paper: climate change. He noted that natural disasters would “increasingly test us with their severity and frequency”, and New Zealand needed to prioritise humanitarian assistance and disaster relief “so that when disaster strikes we don’t have to play catch-up”. With the Greens critical of defence spending and wary of NZDF deployments, climate change could be the glue that holds the coalition’s defence policy together.

And what about the Indo-Pacific? In a Q+A session, Mark was asked why in his speech he preferred to use the term “Asia-Pacific”. He replied, “We may need to adjust our terminology will see in the strategic defence policy statement that we recognize the importance of India and Indo-Pacific region.”

You got the sense that however much Wellington might prefer to hold on to “Asia-Pacific” or “South Pacific”, the ground is shifting. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan - an Indo-Pacific sceptic whose views frequently align with New Zealand’s - signalled during Shangri-La his attitude was changing: “These are early days yet but I am saying based on what has been said [at Shangri La], these are concepts … that we can subscribe to”.

Look for New Zealand to lay out its own position on the various Indo-Pacific proposals, including the Quad, and the principles that underpin them, sometime soon.

This piece was originally published on Incline and is reproduced with permission.

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