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Shangri-La Dialogue: Vagueness from US disappoints many

1st June 2019 - 13:39 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Singapore


The highlight of any Shangri-La Dialogue is Sino-US rivalry. However, China is probably rubbing its hands in glee after 1.5 days of the dialogue have been completed. It has safely negotiated its way through the Singapore event so far without facing any real sharp criticism. Indeed, France has perhaps been the most direct with China so far.

Those hoping for fireworks and a firm stance from the US would have been disappointed by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s speech in the first plenary session.

His deferential remarks to US Senate Armed Service Committee members and senators in the audience, who will be attending his confirmation hearing in Washington within weeks, set the tone.

It is perhaps his ‘acting’ status that caused him to dial down his comments and avoid rocking the boat. Speaking early in the dialogue allowed the US to set the tenor, but he failed to strongly call out China specifically on its behaviour.

Furthermore, after Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver previously promised the unveiling of a new Indo-Pacific strategy at the event, expectations were high for something new and decisive.

Yet Shanahan brought little new that has not been uttered at previous Shangri-La Dialogues. He could only point out that support from President Trump and Congress, as well as funding that had been set aside for the US military’s various aims, were the strongest evidence of a step change in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Shanahan assured his audience of diplomats, defence and military leaders, academics and media that the US is nearly three years into its Indo-Pacific strategy. 

‘We have continuity, and this continuity is propelling us forward. Our direction is unambiguous, and our efforts are captured in our National Defense Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which describes how we are implementing the strategy in this region,' he said.

The latter report was issued on 1 June to coincide with Shanahan’s speech. He promised, ‘The strategy is much more than words. The strategy underpins the department’s budget and drives our resourcing. We have more than a strategy. We have a plan.’

Shanahan, previously a Boeing executive, has no military or Pentagon experience. He said the region is ‘our geographical focus, the priority theatre of our strategy is right here, in the Indo-Pacific’.

The rules-based order featured highly. He noted: ‘The Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision is an effective guide for regional contributions because it is based on enduring principles of international cooperation: Respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations, large and small; peaceful resolution of disputes; free, fair, and reciprocal trade and investment, which includes protections for intellectual property; and adherence to international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation and overflight.’

He acknowledged that ‘some in our region are choosing to act contrary to the principles and norms that have benefitted us all…Acknowledging those actions is not enough; we also need to extrapolate the trend line and recognise the likely future we arrive at if we do not act to call out disruptive actors and take a stand against the challenges to regional order’.

He described these ‘actors who employ ‘a toolkit of coercion’, including deploying ‘advanced weapons systems to militarise disputed areas, destabilising the peaceful status quo by threatening the use of force to compel rivals into conceding claims; using influence operations to interfere in the domestic politics of other nations, undermining the integrity of elections and threatening internal stability; engaging in predatory economics and debt for sovereignty deals, lubricated by corruption, which take advantage of pressing economic needs to structure unequal bargains that disproportionately benefit one party; and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations’ military and civilian technology’.

We can’t wish away reality or continue to look the other way as countries use friendly rhetoric to distract from unfriendly acts. Now is the time to call out the mismatch between words and deeds by some in the region...’

There was no doubt he was talking about China, although the audience had to wait till halfway through the speech before Shanahan got around to calling out the chief culprit.

Shanahan further warned, ‘If the trends in these behaviours continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths. Sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful. When a country makes a pledge and does not follow it, you should worry. When that same country makes no pledge, you should really worry.’

The US and others are indeed really worried, but nobody seems to know what to do about it.

He said: ‘I say now that China could still have a cooperative relationship with the United States. It is in China’s interests to do so…We cooperate with China where we have an alignment of interests...And we compete with China where we must. But competition does not mean conflict. Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules.

‘We want to ensure no adversary believes it can successfully achieve political objectives through military force,’ Shanahan warned. 

Over the next five years, the DoD is investing in space and cyber, while preserving advantages in undersea warfare, tactical aircraft, C4ISR, and missile defence.

The US obviously wants ASEAN and Asian nations to pull their weight. ‘Every nation has a responsibility in the free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States will uphold our commitments, and we need our allies and partners to contribute their fair share.’

All in all, Shanahan’s speech was conciliatory. While his mild manner will likely burnish his credentials when it comes to being confirmed for the US’ top defence post, it did little to reassure allies.

And this is the problem. If the US, the world’s preeminent superpower, is reticent about pointing the finger at China, what confidence does that inspire in others? For all the talk about a rules-based order, all are too cowed to even name China let alone to institute penalties for breaking the established rules.

Interestingly, Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu blamed both the US and China for raising tensions in the South China Sea.

Such a comment reflected the mood set by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his keynote address the previous evening, where he advocated that China and the US both adjust to a new reality. Talking about smaller regional countries, Lee added, ‘They want to be friends with both: to nurture security and economic ties with the US, as they grow their business links with China.’

Revealingly, when pressed to comment on why Malaysia allowed a China Coast Guard vessel to remain within its territorial waters at Luconia Shoals, Sabu responded, ‘The Chinese Coast Guard [vessel] is bigger than Malaysian warships, so how can we chase them?’

Chinese coercion is clearly a highly successful strategy.

Such comments by Sabu will only encourage Beijing to continue such tactics with its coast guard and maritime militia. After all, there are few penalties, if any, for doing so.

Gordon Arthur


Gordon Arthur

Gordon Arthur is the Asia Pacific editor for Shephard Media. Born in Scotland and educated …

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