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6 June 2019

Amidst mounting tensions between China and the US, this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue saw several countries reveal their own hopes and dreams for the Indo-Pacific, as well as reinforcing the lack of trust existing in the region, Huong Le Thu writes.

The Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) is a key regional communication platform for actors in the Indo-Pacific. This year’s gathering promised a chance for global powers to address the mounting questions and concerns surrounding their strategies and intentions.

Singapore, also the SLD’s host country, voiced the region’s general concerns around escalated US-China tensions. Representing those involuntarily entangled in this great power competition, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out that the situation is hampering growth in smaller states and could potentially lead to a disastrous clash in the region.

Speaking against confrontation and for cooperation, Lee reiterated the importance of multilateralism expressed through strategies ranging from ASEAN-style forums, to trade-negotiated regimes like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Moreover, taking neutrality as the guiding principle of its foreign policy, Singapore has always welcomed new initiatives like the Belt and Road and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific on the condition that they encourage cooperation and inclusivity as well as being ASEAN-centred.

More on this: Many belts, many roads in SLD 2018

This is to prevent Southeast Asian countries from suffering the most amidst great power rivalries. The Singaporean prime minister urged countries in the region to collectively ensure that such a conflict – one with the potential of lasting for generations – be avoided.

With such a scene having been set, there was even more anticipation around how the great powers would address these concerns.

The US – represented by acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan – further elaborated on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. A year after his predecessor, Jim Mattis, made a speech espousing Washington’s view of a rules-based order, the strategy remains poorly understood in the region.

Instead of clarifying and laying out the details, however, Shanahan mainly focused on the country’s larger ‘wants’. These included:

  • We want the Indo-Pacific to remain free and open.”
  • “The United States does not want any country in this region to have to choose or forgo positive economic relations with any partner.”
  • “We want a different future – a more promising future, one where small nations need not fear larger neighbors.”

The US presented a picture of an Indo-Pacific in which all countries benefited from the regional partnership in one way or another. Despite attempts at ensuring his audience that the US had a strong vision and plan, Shanahan fell short in convincing them that it knew how to reach those goals.

Even the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, released by the US Department of Defence during the SLD, didn’t seem to help Shanahan clarify this. The US representative not only avoided making any pledges, but he also avoided using names whenever possible while referring to “a country [that] makes a pledge
and does not follow it”. Obviously, one was only reminded of China and its promise to refrain from militarising the South China Sea.

As far as messaging was concerned, China’s representatives were most effective in their delivery – both to regional and domestic audiences. It was the first time since 2011 that a high-ranking Chinese delegate such as General Wei Fenghe – China’s State Councillor and Minister of National Defence – had attended the SLD.

More on this: The Indo-Pacific is no Shangri-La

Whether anyone agrees with China or not is another matter, but their messages were loud and clear. To begin, the general adamantly maintained that Taiwan would never officially become independent from China.

He also underlined the positive developments in the South China Sea, and insisted that negotiations around its Code of Conduct were moving forward. According to Wei, the country was not militarising the South China Sea either – it has only been defending itself.

Wei also emphasised that China was well on the path of peaceful development. He suggested that in the last 70 years since the People’s Republic of China had been founded, the country has neither ever started a military conflict nor taken land from other countries.

This, however, is something that many of its neighbours – key actors in the Indo-Pacific whose political trajectory has been in many ways determined by China’s aggression – could never agree with.

In what was a very unapologetically upfront speech, Wei offered his audience no comfort; rather, he reminded them of China’s unwavering confidence and determination.

He also made it clear that China’s lack of aggression wasn’t to be considered a willingness to yield in saying “‘we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked,” and that “the PLA vows not to yield a single inch of the country’s sacred land […]”

More on this: No zero-sum games in the Indo-Pacific

Given the high geopolitical tensions, Australia, perhaps, felt compelled to talk about the role of norms and rules in the Indo-Pacific.

The newly appointed Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds reaffirmed this in her speech in saying “we know who we are, you know who we are”. In times of uncertainty full of changes in the roles of many powers and even the world order, Australia’s policies continue to be dictated by the norms and values that it embraces.

Understanding the complexities of the region, the country expressed its desire to build meaningful and reliable relationships with its regional partners. Unfortunately, however, Australia, too, missed the opportunity to clarify its strategy on how it would achieve an open, inclusive, and sovereignty-respecting Indo-Pacific.

If there was any consensus at this year’s SLD, it’s that there’s a lack of trust in the Indo-Pacific. Whether actors be big or small, or be from within or outside the region, current sentiments are not overly positive.

This is not something that can be fixed through regional dialogue alone – not even the SLD. After all, trust is not built through words, but rather, through the actions that follow. Given the unyielding attitudes of the US and China, a deficiency in trust has become a defining characteristic of the Indo-Pacific reality.

This piece is published in partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist website.

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