The Shangri-La Dialogue: Great Expectations and the Positives
China's defense minister General Wei Fenghe. (Photo: Getty Images)
By Tai Wei Lim

The Shangri-La Dialogue: Great Expectations and the Positives

Jun. 07, 2019  |     |  0 comments

There were great expectations for the annual Track 1.5 Shangri-La Dialogue that was held in June 2019 in Singapore. Many considered it to be a cautiously successful event all round. There were many reasons to support this view. Ten of them are listed here for consideration.

First, the event saw the debut of the new acting US Defense Secretary Patrick D. Shanahan who replaced General James Mattis who resigned from his post. The region met and interacted with Shanahan face to face and concluded (at this point of time) tentatively that he appeared to be moderate. The grapevine (which cannot be proven conclusively) apparently said that he read a more moderate version of US strategic ideas about the region than his predecessor. It was unclear if this was a perception or reality but the net effect appeared to be a positive one as it created a conducive atmosphere for the two military leaders of the US and China to meet up. There were benign and friendly photo ops of the two leaders in the public before their closed door bilateral meeting.

Second, for the first time in eight years, a Chinese Minister of Defense — General Wei Fenghe — attended the meeting. The first time it occurred was at the inaugural event of the Shangri-La Dialogue. Apparently, the Chinese delegation considered the atmospherics to be quite hostile to their interests and consistently and gradually downgraded its representation to the Dialogue since then. The Chinese establishment also felt pressure from issues like the South China Sea and other geopolitical matters and considered the atmosphere to be imposing. Those were popular perceptions then. In fact, thereafter, the Chinese started their own 1.5 security dialogue, the Xiangshan Forum, which was also crucial for discussing important strategic issues, with Chinese organization and perspectives.

Third, the appearance of the military leaders of the two most powerful militaries came at a time of tension as the region wondered what’s next. The smiling faces of the two leaders at the meeting conveyed a sense of stability and rationality of the two countries and created atmospherics for future events and dialogues through which the region hoped would defuse tensions. After all, this was an introductory moment for the new incoming US Defense Secretary. It was also a platform for the Chinese Defense Minister to meet with his new counterpart under the glare of the hopeful community of nations who were keen to show that a US-China clash was not inevitable.

Fourth, it was also a collective desire to avoid accidental clashes, lower the temperatures and avoid the traps that had led great powers in the past to start the tinderboxes of World War I and World War II. Instead, one could turn great power rivalry into benign progress for humankind by striving for friendly competition for cutting-edge technologies that could solve world issues and problems for humans. The region appreciated the balanced, frank and reassuring speech provided by Shanahan. Even the perception that the speech was a moderate version of other versions favored by the hawks of President Donald J. Trump’s administration was a very much welcomed one to tune down the temperature in the atmosphere.

Fifth, there were popular perceptions in the US media that there was an internal clash between two powerful forces within the US administration, the hawks and the globalists. With the exit of more moderate members of the administration, there was a perception that the globalists had been weakened and the hard core realist hawks could now hold sway in the Trump administration. Many were figuring out which side Shanahan stood on and his moderate speech appeared reassuring to some. The US is the most powerful player in the region and, while China leads in certain economic and technological fields, the US remains by far the dominant military, economic, geopolitical and technological leader of the world today. Its views and political sway are highly important and crucial for the region and the world.

Peace and its dividends appeared to hold sway at the Dialogue as militaries prepare for the worst by strengthening readiness while visionary political leaders and wise professional diplomats seek to avoid ever using those swords and keep them as shields.

Sixth, similarly, the international media also speculated that there were powerful hawkish and moderate voices within Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration. The whittling down of a 150-page draft trade dispute agreement to 105 pages was perceived as a reflection of such forces at work, although the Chinese system appeared to be more uniform with a party line, centralized leadership and a president with tenure for life. Some in the region were also keen to see the Chinese express their interests frankly and they apparently got those messages from General Wei. Some wondered if the sudden appearance of the General was a sign that the Chinese authorities were arriving in crisis mood with recognition that Chinese interests in the region were unwelcomed by other powers or if their high level delegation was arriving with great confidence and comfort contextualized by a great rising power. Many appeared to think the latter seemed to be the case from General Wei’s delivery and performance.

Seven, while toeing the party line, General Wei apparently charmed some members of the audience with his frank speech and Question and Answer session. He apparently did not shy away from sensitive issues like South China Sea and Taiwan. He came to the Forum with an air of confidence that appeared to reflect the rise of a great power and laid out his government and party’s understanding of regional geopolitical issues. Some in the audience were impressed by his presentation. Frankness, not fiery statements, is often constructive in identifying if there is a challenge and problem with the current scenario and may be the first step to reaching compromises and agreements over such issues.

Eight, the US presence also reassured allies, partners and friends that the world’s greatest superpower (some may even term the country a “hyper power”) was committed to the region and very much engaged, if not entrenched in its interests in the region. The US is viewed as a benign power, even a benign hegemon to its critics, and all parties are very much in favor of its strong presence to remain, even by its rivals. The US has been a stabilizing factor in the region for many decades since the last Great War.  Its support for independence in the era of decolonization, its introduction of democracy and maritime security has provided the factors for East Asian stability for decades.

Nine, US leadership in creating an international system underpinned by the United Nations, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund is sometimes known as the “Washington Consensus” by adherents and member states. This world system has become a source of stability for world economic development for decades and avoided the scourge of war. Some suggest it is time for the system to allow greater Chinese representation (the constructivists and functionalists) so that greater interdependence and economic ties can decrease chances of warfare. Others argue that the Chinese has come up with their own “Beijing Consensus” institutions of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Silk Road Fund, Belt and Road Initiative, and other multilateral institutions.

Finally, ten, it was also suggested that the world breaking into separate blocs of power, like the US-Soviet confrontation during the Cold War or the Alliances blocs in World War I and World War II or splitting into parallel universes with China and the US not interlinked by permeable boundary membranes, had ended in military conflicts in the past. Instead, the region and the world may want to consider continuation of an interdependence, functionalist and constructivist interdependent world where complex multiple linkages increase the costs of war and decrease the nationalist appeal of war as an instrument to resolve international tensions and conflicts. The Shangri-La Dialogue may just be an expression of that will. Not only the US-China tensions, it also gave a space for other powers like Japan and South Korea to talk about their recent tensions over issues like radar lock-on in security encounters at sea. Peace and its dividends appeared to hold sway at the Dialogue as militaries prepare for the worst by strengthening readiness while visionary political leaders and wise professional diplomats seek to avoid ever using those swords and keep them as shields.

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