US and China at Shangri La Dialogue – Reiterating the Zero Sum Game?
As the US and Chinese leadership outlined their perspectives of defence and security in the Indo Pacific at the Shangri La Dialogue 2019 concerns of a zero sum game emerge.
The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 is a seminal event held each year which sees congregation of the strategic hoi polloi in the Asia Pacific or Indo Pacific as is more commonly known now.
Each year there is a core theme and a speaker.
In 2018, it was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who outlined India’s vision of an inclusive Indo Pacific with ASEAN centrality.
The speech marked a second thaw in India China relations the first one being at the informal summit in Wuhan a few days earlier where Mr Modi and President Xi Jinping rebuilt a somewhat fractured relationship after the Doklam or Donglang (Chinese) standoff in 2017.
This year it was the appearance of the Chinese Minister of Defence Gen. Wei Fenghe on
2 June, 2019 that was watched with much interest at the 18th iteration.
Importantly China fielded a Defence Minister at the Shangri La Dialogue after eight years, the last appearance was by General Liang Guanglie in 2011.
The US Secretary of Defence is a permanent plenary speaker at the event each year.
General Wei Fenghe till recently head of the strategic rocket forces of the country spoke on 2 June and was preceded by United States Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan a day earlier thus setting the stage for a clash of the titans so to say.
In the end a reading of the prepared speeches denoted how much defence heads of the Worlds two leading powers – United States and China were saying the same things – freedom of operations, capability and capacity building, deterrence, cooperative security and partnerships.
Yet the distinction was also evident with both clearly drawing their spheres of influence and accusing the other of undertaking hostile moves to create instability in the region.
For instance the United States Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan spoke of the “greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order,” hinting but not mentioning in so many words – China [and Russia].
He also outlined the hostile moves by these states from what he called, “a toolkit of coercion.”
Gen. Wei Fenghe on the other hand virtually blamed American intervention for security challenges across the World stating, “Some deliberately create division and hostility”, and went on to outline a nation which, “champions unilateralism, puts its own interests before others, withdraws from international treaties and organizations,” etc.
To the august gathering of strategic experts, this was a clear pointer towards the United States.
Coming on to sovereignty and expansion in the South China Sea in an oblique way Shanahan said, “If the trends in these [Chinese] behaviors continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths. Sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful”. “When a country makes a pledge and does not follow it, you should worry. When that same country makes no pledge … You should really worry,” he added.
Gen. Wei Fenghe on the other hand recalled the history of colonisation by the West and then went on to outline measures that were taken to create stability in the South China Sea and blamed, “people trying to rake in profits by stirring up troubles in the region,” possibly hinting at the freedom of navigation operations.
Gen. Wei Fenghe also justified, “legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory”.
Shanahan outlined the contours of United States Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision as an effort to construct a cooperation security architecture, Wei Fenghe on the other hand saw this as building, “military blocs”, to “undermine the interests of others”.
He also underlined the cooperative framework by China under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), indicated that China is “largest troop contributor among the permanent members of the UN Security Council and a major contributor of funds to UN Peackeeping and has “shared destiny with ASEAN countries, deepened traditional friendship with India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries”.
Gen. Wei Fenghe dismissed the threat of restrictions on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea stating, “ Over 100,000 ships sail through the South China Sea each year”.
On defence capability building to ensure deterrence Shanahan outlined the $104 billion programme for R & D in emerging technologies and “$125 billion in operational readiness,” with over 370,000 American armed forces personnel deployed in the Indo Pacific command. This was seen as a signal to allies and partners in the region that the US has is strongly committed to defence their security interests and also to the Chinese of the strong military presence of an advanced United States military in its backyard.
Gen. Wei Fenghe on the other hand emphasised China’s military strategy of active defense which included, “self defense and post strike response”.
He also claimed that the, “PLA vows not to yield a single inch of the country s sacred land,
but it shall not seize anything from others either”.
The aggressive signalling by the two premier powers in the region was obvious.
The IISS states in the opening blurb on Shangri La Dialogue that, “It’s a unique meeting where ministers debate the region’s most pressing security challenges, engage in important bilateral talks and come up with fresh solutions together”.
The 18th Dialogue will be remembered by clear outlining of diverse positions on critical issues impacting defence and security in the Indo Pacific by the United States and China. “Fresh solutions,” may take more frequent engagements, mutual confidence and trust building and commitment to cooperative security multilateralism.