The two great powers missed an opportunity to talk directly on defence matters at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. A record turn-out, including from ministers across world, highlights just how worried many have become about the state of affairs.
The 20th Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) convened once again at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore between 2 and 4 June 2023. This annual summit serves as a premier gathering for Asia’s top defence officials, providing a platform for discussions on regional security matters. Organised by the Institute of International Strategic Studies (IISS), a globally recognised think tank specialising in international security, the SLD garnered significant attention and participation not only from Asian nations but also key European countries.
The purpose of the SLD is to provide a multilateral platform for defence leaders to “debate the region’s most pressing security challenge, engage in important bilateral talks, and come up with fresh approaches together.” Now, as these distinguished delegates return to their respective countries, the time has come to reflect upon the accomplishments, disappointments, and common concerns of the 20th SLD.
Two significant achievements stand out. Despite the simmering tensions between the United States and China, both US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu attended the summit, delivering plenary speeches that elucidated their respective security perspectives on the region. While a bilateral meeting did not materialise, their exchange of handshakes accompanied by smiles offered a glimmer of diplomatic civility amid the strained relations. Impressively, this year’s SLD boasted an impressive attendance of 571 official delegates from 54 countries, including 34 ministers. Such widespread participation reinforced the SLD’s reputation as the foremost multilateral platform for addressing international security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region.
Throughout the event, a comprehensive range of security-related issues took centre stage, embracing topics as diverse as the Ukrainian war, the North Korean crisis, cyber security, and climate change. The engaging discussions and debates among delegates and participants were emblematic of the SLD’s commitment to urgently addressing these pressing challenges. Beyond its comprehensive scope, the SLD’s primary objective remains to foster mutual understanding and confidence among military and defence officials rather than achieving specific bilateral or multilateral agreements.
The summit’s second noteworthy accomplishment lies in providing a platform for middle and small powers to contribute fresh perspectives and actively shape regional security dynamics. A striking example was Indonesia’s defence minister, Prabowo Subianto, who presented a peace plan to resolve the Ukrainian war. The proposal encompassed the establishment of a demilitarised zone and conducting a United Nations referendum. While the Ukrainian foreign ministry dismissed the plan, Prabowo’s proactive initiative not only showcased Indonesia’s increasing engagement in international affairs, but also echoed the sentiments of numerous Asian nations, longing for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine.
One notable disappointment at this year’s SLD was the absence of a bilateral meeting between the defence ministers of the US and China. The US had sought such a meeting, but the request was rejected due to the ongoing sanctions imposed on China’s Defence Minister General Li for alleged involvement in procuring military equipment from Russia, dating back to 2018. The US stood firm in refusing to lift the sanctions, resulting in a deadlock between the two nations.
Adding to the strained atmosphere were two military incidents between the US and China. On 26 May, a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft was accused of engaging in dangerous and aggressive intercepts against US reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea. Then, on 3 June , a Chinese navy ship unexpectedly maneuvered across the path of a US guided-missile destroyer conducting a routine transit through the Taiwan Strait. These incidents served as vivid examples, and cited by US Defence Minister Austin, to illustrate China’s assertiveness and the potential risks of military conflicts.
In response, China’s Defence Minister Li refuted the accusations by questioning why the US deliberately provoked military risks by conducting surveillance activities near Chinese airspace and sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait. Li asserted that the best way to prevent such incidents was for countries, particularly their naval vessels and fighter jets, to refrain from approaching other countries’ territories in a provocative manner. In the absence of a direct dialogue between the Chinese defence minister and US defence secretary at the SLD, both parties resorted to accusing each other of making provocative actions without lending an ear to possible explanations from their counterparts. The absence of a meaningful exchange between the ministers highlighted the missed opportunity for dialogue and understanding, leaving important questions unanswered and tensions unaddressed.
If there is one point of “consensus” between the US and China, as well as at the SLD in general, it is the recognition of the potential dangers of military conflicts in the region. The military tensions surrounding Taiwan escalated following President Tsai Ing-wen’s fly-over visit to the US and meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April 2023. China accuses the US of supporting Taiwan’s pro-independence forces, while the US criticises China’s aggressive intentions and behaviour aimed at altering the existing status quo. It is evident that both countries hold differing interpretations of what the “status quo” entails. Nevertheless, in order to bridge this perception gap and minimise misunderstandings, diplomatic efforts and dialogue must be pursued by both parties.
During the first day of the summit, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was invited to deliver a keynote speech. In his address, Albanese emphasised the urgent need to establish guardrails and reopen communication channels between the US and China, to prevent potential conflicts in the region. His sentiments align with the concerns and aspirations shared by most regional states regarding the relationship between the two superpowers. However, Albanese seemed to side with the US and implied that China was the obstacle to communication between the two.
As a middle power, Australia could have played a more influential role in promoting constructive dialogue between the US and China, rather than engaging in a blame game. Australia should actively engage in collaborative efforts with other middle and small powers to collectively urge both states to prioritise regional security through a more restrained approach. Deterrence should not become an excuse for any country to engage in aggressive behaviour. It is crucial to heed the Singaporean defence minister’s warning that heightened military expenditures will inevitably fuel regional arms races. Further, it is imperative for both the US and China to not only “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk” in their actions.
Kai He is a professor of International Relations and the director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, Australia. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) (2022-2023). The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USIP.
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