The Shangri-La Dialogue: Fundamental South China Sea Questions Left Unanswered
Photo Credit: The International Institute for Strategic Studies
By Mark J. Valencia

The Shangri-La Dialogue: Fundamental South China Sea Questions Left Unanswered

Jun. 08, 2017  |     |  0 comments


It’s June and that means a gaggle of defense ministers, officials and analysts have flocked to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to hear the US and its allies bash China. This year did not disappoint. However, the major difference from some previous years was that China wisely sent a relatively low-level delegation to hear their country’s policies and actions be criticized. Lost in the bluster and bravado were fundamental questions regarding the strategic future of Asia.


The US, Japan, and Australia seemed to be reading from the same script. They excoriated China for unilateral actions incompatible with the “rules-based international order”: militarizing disputed features in the South China Sea, “bullying” and “showing contempt” for its neighbors,” and being an implied threat to “freedom of navigation.”


US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in obvious reference to China: “We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims. We cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo.” But he did not define the status quo nor say if and how the US would roll back the changes China and others — including the US — have made to it. Perhaps his most controversial remark — at least for China — was his reference to the “steadfast” US commitment to Taiwan “to provide in the defense articles necessary.” Given the bellicose context of his remarks, China may interpret this as a signal that the US is preparing to strengthen defense ties with Taiwan and that another arms sale is in the works.


Australia’s Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull asserted — again with clear reference to China — that “maintaining the rule of law in our region, respecting the sovereignty of nations large and small is the key to continued peace and stability.” Australia’s Defense Minister Marise Payne emphasized Australia’s support for the Hague’s South China Sea arbitration decision which went heavily against China. Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada echoed that sentiment and added that “in the East and South China Seas, we continue to witness unprovoked, unilateral attempts to alter the status quo based on assertions incompatible with existing international norms.”


Predictably, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying fired back, calling the remarks by Mattis and by Tomomi “irresponsible” and expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with them.


So, the Shangri-La Dialogue has once again come and gone. Rather than achieving its stated goal of “building confidence,” the exchanges seemed to have exacerbated relations between China and the US and its allies. Worse, the Dialogue failed to raise or address fundamental questions regarding the geopolitical situation in the region.


It is clear that the strategic order in the region is changing — and post haste. US primacy is waning and China’s role in shaping its future is swiftly waxing. Failure to acknowledge this and its implications prevents the formulation of a collective response to managing this power transition peacefully while preserving the core interests of all.



As tension between China and the US ratchets up, is Australia able and willing to forge a security and foreign policy vis-à-vis China that is truly independent of its alliance with the US?


Some of these fundamental questions are:


What exactly is it that the US and its allies fear about China’s primacy in Asia? Of course, the US, like any great power, wants to maintain its dominance for as long as possible — for national pride if nothing else. But are there other deeper reasons that are sufficient to incur the huge costs and risks of maintaining US hegemony in Asia? Some argue that given China’s enormous human resources, geographic contiguity, and ongoing economic “miracle,” it will be impossible for the US to constrain it indefinitely. As Australian analyst Hugh White writes, the US wants to “maintain an open, liberal economic order and to preserve the territorial and political security of its regional allies.” China’s dependence on maritime trade through the South China Sea and its “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” do not mean that it wants to drastically change the region’s economic regime — from which it is clearly benefiting. Of course, China, like any large power, wants to control its near seas — for its own defense. But this does not necessarily mean that China will threaten the core territorial integrity of US allies.


However, if that is what US decision makers have concluded, then military confrontation is necessary sooner rather than later — and these Dialogues are futile. But if that is not what they think, or they are not sure, then the question becomes how can the interests of all be accommodated peacefully, or with a minimum of friction and “losers”? The US seems to think China’s entry into its dominated “international order” can be “managed” i.e., “guided” by its “soft” and if necessary “hard” power. The problem is that so far it doesn’t seem to have been very successful in doing so. Indeed, some of China’s policies and actions in the South China and East China Seas seem totally out of sync with that “existing order.” Is the US sticking its head in the sand or whistling by the graveyard? Denying reality is dangerous.


Take the recent Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) targeting the Chinese-occupied and -claimed Mischief Reef. As Hugh White asked recently in an article in War on the Rocks, was its purpose to demonstrate the US position on legal issues? Or was it to deter and roll back China’s strategic challenge there?


If it was to make a legal point, it was successful in a muted manner in challenging any Chinese claim to a territorial sea around Mischief Reef, and thus indirectly to China’s claim to sovereignty over that feature. But if it was meant to demonstrate US resolve to maintain its dominance in the region and roll back China’s strategic gains, it was a failure — like the FONOPs before it.


Indeed, the US has not been able to deter China from occupying, building and “militarizing” features in the South China Sea. Instead, it has generally avoided military confrontation. This is understandable because that could quickly escalate into a broader conflict for which neither Washington nor the US public seem to have the moxie for the risks that would entail. Indeed, the fundamental question is whether or not the US and its public are really ready to risk a “war to end all wars” for theoretical and hypothetical threats to “freedom of navigation” and to the resources and sovereignty over flyspecks claimed by some Southeast Asian countries in that Sea.


Other fundamental questions relate to the security policy of US allies. Turnbull said that choosing between Beijing and Washington is “an utterly false choice. We have a good friend and partner in Beijing, steadfast friend and allies in Washington. Nothing constrains us in our dealings with the other.” These are brave words. But as tension between China and the US ratchets up, is Australia able and willing to forge a security and foreign policy vis-à-vis China that is truly independent of its alliance with the US? If so, what is that policy likely to look like?


Is Japan and its public willing to risk conflict with China over its actions and policies in the South China Sea? What exactly is at stake there for Japan other than a hypothetical threat to “freedom of navigation” and the US request to “back it up”? Is ASEAN “centrality” in the security of the region a myth never to be attained? If not, how can it be realized in practice — beyond providing a platform for talk shops?


These are the types of questions that should be raised and addressed. By not doing so, current trends are likely to continue until it is too late to avoid confrontation and conflict.

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