The tenth Shangri-La dialogue

Author: Sheryn Lee, ANU

On 4-5 June, Singapore was once again awash with security and defence buzz amid the 10th annual International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Shangri-La Dialogue.

While in previous years attention has centred on the keynote address of the US Secretary of Defence, this year’s event was dominated by a first time attendant: the Chinese Defence Minister, General Liang Guanglie. The Chinese General’s appearance heralded the strategic importance of the dialogue as a forum for the world’s leading nations. It also recognised the reality that discussions of regional defence issues and multilateral security initiatives necessitate Beijing’s participation.

It seemed fitting that a dialogue that begun with the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ rejection of the notion that the US is in relative decline should end with General Liang proselytising on why the region should be assured that China’s expanding military capabilities are benign. In spite of their almost boilerplate attempts to reassure, the sum effect of these statements was to throw into relief the blunt concerns of regional defence ministers regarding the negative tangent of security developments in maritime Asia. South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan Jin stated that Seoul would not continue to show restraint in the face of North Korean aggression, while Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov claimed that the Kuril Islands were not a ‘territorial dispute’ with Japan. By turns, the Vietnamese Defence Minister confirmed the acquisition of six Kilo-class submarines, and the UK Defence Minister Liam Fox outlined ‘greater plans’ for the Five Power Defence Arrangements, with the UK and Australia to conclude a bilateral defence agreement by 2012.

In contrast to China’s talk of a desire for a ‘peaceful external environment’ for its ‘peaceful development’, and the pressure it is receiving to become a ‘responsible stakeholder,’ it has done little to moderate its push for overt militarised influence. Its increased presence in the region is having a destabilising effect, not only in the case of the South China Sea, but also in regards to dealing with Pyongyang’s intransigence. Similarly, despite Secretary Gates’ rhetoric, American power in the region cannot keep up the same tempo over the long term. Fiscal constraints and continuing extra-regional demands, in particular in the Middle East, have already begun to take their toll on Washington’s military edge, as China’s modernisation of the PLA rapidly continues.

These challenges are largely ignored in the official narratives from formalised settings such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), which have tended to emphasise the possibilities for cooperative responses to regional threats. Even at the Shangri-La Dialogue there was an overwhelming focus on humanitarian aid and disaster relief. There is no question that collaborative efforts in these areas are significant, but the very real elephant of traditional security challenges is being downplayed, even as it threatens to trample regional stability. The question that is seldom asked publicly is: how can the region deal with the shifting power dynamics?

Many nations are taking the answer into their own hands by turning towards military modernisation programs of their own, not only to counter China’s efforts but also to prepare for a future in which Washington may not be able to play the role of ‘offshore balancer’. As such, one of the key points that arose at Shangri-La was the desire to build a security architecture robust enough to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation and misunderstanding, and deal with such challenges as negotiating multilateral binding limits on military modernisation, or committing parties to an ‘Incidents at Sea’ agreement.

At this point in time, the region lacks the institutions necessary to make such actions credible. While establishing new mechanisms like the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) and expanding existing ones like the EAS could potentially lead to a security architecture that produces tangible results, neither approach has yet borne fruit with regards to core strategic challenges. The challenge for policymakers is to respond to this demand for an architecture commensurate with the problems of competition and robust enough to bring both the US and China together to deal honestly with their military competition while providing security for smaller regional states.

Increasingly, the political and strategic barriers to this challenge appear insurmountable. The region is confronting a contradiction at the heart of multilateral discussion: while talk helps, it only does so if it is frank. Empty talk reflects insincerity, which actually exacerbates distrust amongst participants and accelerates competition. With the failure of security dialogue to achieve the level of trust required for collectiveaction, regional parties are encouraged to take a self-help approach to security by themselves or with traditional partners. As a consequence, there is a risk that the region will descend into bickering and confrontation between highly armed blocs. Rather than contributing to a balance of power, such a scenario raises the risk that certain major extra-regional players, such as the United States, may decide to cut their involvement suddenly in response to domestic and economic pressures. The potential for regional strategic instability would be significant, with conflict triggers abounding from the DMZ to the Paracel Islands.

As the region faces the possibility of a conflict spiral exacerbated by distrust, the need to overcome reticence and speak bluntly about regional strategic and economic realities is paramount. Unfortunately, the opportunity for honesty passed Washington and Beijing by at Shangri-La.

Sheryn Lee is a research assistant and Robert O’Neill Scholar at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University.

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