Asia-Pacific Issues Dominate the Shangri-La Dialogue 2024

The latest edition of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore from May 31 to June 2, covered vital strategic, geopolitical, economic, military and security trends in the Asia-Pacific, besides bringing regional leaders to meet and confabulate with global leaders on regional and global issues

By Asad Mirza

Opinion

The weekend talks at Shangri-La Dialogue were held as wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine, and at a time of increasing tensions and competition for influence between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific region. It also saw the Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr addressing the gathering, and bringing their perspectives at the confabulations as regard to the Ukrainian war and the continuing Chinese-Philippines row in the South China Sea (SCS).

 

The 2024 Shangri-La Dialogue provided an opportunity to both China and the United States on how to keep lines of communications open in view of the rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

 

Principally, most Asia-Pacific countries are concerned about the lack of communication between the United States and China, two nuclear-armed powers, in an era of great-power competition. Numerous mechanisms between China and regional countries already exist, as they also do between regional countries excluding it.

 

Mechanisms which include China are reportedly used infrequently and are therefore of questionable effectiveness. This infrequent use stems from Beijing’s staunch opposition to any activity that it deems to be a provocation, including activity deemed as legal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

 

Meanwhile, regional mechanisms that exclude China have been more effective and are regularly used. While multilateralism is unlikely to provide effective solutions to regional crisis management soon, there was a growing momentum behind regional mini-lateral initiatives.

 

The Singapore conference provided an opportunity to the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with his Chinese counterpart for more than an hour on Friday May 31, as the two countries seek to repair lines of communications between their militaries.

 

The meeting behind closed doors with Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun was the first in person for the top defence officials since contacts between the American and Chinese militaries broke down in 2022 after the then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, infuriating Beijing.

 

In their meeting Friday, May 31, Austin emphasised the importance of keeping open lines of military-to-military communication and said “both sides will resume telephone conversations between theatre commanders in the coming months,” spokesman Ryder said.

 

Chinese Defence Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said this was an important step, as the communications between the two militaries aims to enhance understanding, eliminate misunderstanding, accumulate mutual trust and achieve stability in relations.

 

An Asian NATO?

Meanwhile, just a day after the meeting, a top Chinese general accused the US of trying to build an “Asia-Pacific version of Nato”, underlining tensions between Washington and Beijing.

 

Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng denounced the US as the “source of chaos and tension” in the Indo-Pacific and said its regional strategy aimed to “create division, provoke confrontation and undermine stability”.

Speaking at the Dialogue’s security forum after US defence secretary Lloyd Austin had outlined the ways the Biden administration was working with allies to boost deterrence in the region, Jing said Washington would end up “tying the region’s countries to the US war chariot”.

 

In his speech, Austin had said the US and its Indo-Pacific allies – including Japan, Australia, the Philippines and South Korea – were engineering a historic “convergence” of their defence interests by creating a “set of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions” to boost military co-operation, develop new capabilities and enhance security. Here the conspicuous absence of India from the list of US partners may raise the heckles in India.

 

Responding to the speech, Jing, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department at the Central Military Commission of the People’s Liberation Army, said: “The true motive of the US is to converge small circles into a big circle, that is an Asian-Pacific version of Nato, to maintain the US-led hegemony”.

 

On their part, US officials rejected the argument, which Beijing has made in recent years, and said American allies were investing in security because of China’s aggressive actions in the region.

 

Increasing Tensions in the Indo-Pacific

Reportedly in his talks with Austin, Dong also accused the US of inflaming regional security by deploying medium-range missiles in the Philippines for the first time recently, and said the Philippines was being provocative toward China by pressing its own South China Sea claims, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian told reporters after the meeting.

 

Meanwhile, the new Philippine president opened this year’s conference, Ferdinand Marcos Jr expressed concerns over a new law issued by China giving its coast guard license to seize foreign ships “that illegally enter China’s territorial waters” and to detain foreign crews for up to 60 days. The same law also made new reference to 2021 legislation that says China’s coast guard can fire upon foreign ships if necessary.

 

With Philippines ships now regularly confronted by the Chinese, there are concerns that a low-level confrontation could lead to an escalation. This year’s conference came just a week after China held massive military drills around Taiwan, staging a simulated blockade of the island after it inaugurated a new government that refuses to accept Beijing’s insistence that the island is part of China.

 

The United States, meanwhile, has been ramping up military exercises in the region with its allies to underscore its “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, meant to emphasise freedom of navigation through the contested waters, including the Taiwan Strait. China also claims the democratic self-governing island of Taiwan and has said it will not rule out using force to take it. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must come under its control, by force if necessary.

 

In a speech at the forum that was critical of Beijing, Australia’s defence minister Richard Marles said Chinese military actions around Taiwan “do not inspire confidence that China prioritises or is planning for a peaceful settlement”.

 

In a separate speech Indonesia’s defence minister and president-elect Prabowo Subianto told stakeholders in Southeast Asia to exercise restraint.

 

The shadow of the continuing conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine also casted a shadow over the conference. Indonesia’s President-elect Prabowo, who has been one of the most vocal critics of what he sees as Western hypocrisy, accused the West of caring more about Ukraine than Palestinians in a recent interview with The Economist. Last year Prabowo (then Indonesia’s defence minister) made waves at the Shangri-La Dialogue by urging Ukraine to accept a Korea-like demilitarised zone with Moscow, which would effectively oblige Kyiv to accept the loss of territories conquered by Russia.

 

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who made a late arrival to the conference Sunday, also trod carefully around China, criticising its alleged arms support for Russia but also appealing to Beijing to participate in Ukraine’s upcoming peace summit in Switzerland.

 

“We need the support of Asian countries,” Zelensky said during a news conference. “We respect each voice, each territory. … We want Asia to know what is going on in Ukraine.”

 

The Shangri-La Dialogue it seems was able to bring a raft of leaders to the forum, with equally important issues being debated at the conference. However, no clear consensus emerged at the conference on various issues facing the Indo-Pacific region. Only the resolve by the Chines and US defence ministers to keep the lines of communications between the two countries open could be described as one of the positive outcomes of the conference.