The Gloves Come off at 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue

By Nigel Inkster, Director, Transnational Threats and Political Risk

By general consensus, the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue entered new territory. Until now, exchanges at the Dialogue had been very Asian in their circumspection and avoidance of controversy. Pressure has been building up for some time, driven by regional concerns about the implications of an increasingly assertive and militarily capable China disposed to challenge the United States’ status as guarantor of regional stability. But this year the dramatic new ingredient was a keynote address by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who expressed his desire to dispense with Japan’s historical baggage and begin a new chapter as a normal country and an exponent of active pacifism. Abe spoke of Japan’s emphasis on the importance of observing international law and norms and promoting human rights – pointed if unspoken references to a China widely perceived within the region to be doing neither, particularly with respect to its maritime policies. And Abe’s speech was followed by an even more blunt statement from US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who accused China of disrupting the regional order and stating that the US government would not stand idly by when confronted with breaches of international law.
Hagal(left) and Wang shake hands at 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue.

The stage was set for a strong Chinese riposte, and the leader of China’s delegation General Wang Guanzhong did not disappoint with some ‘unscripted’ remarks – actually the product of intensive writing and rewriting deep into the night – in which he accused Japan and the US of ganging up on China and violating the spirit of the Dialogue. General Wang – junior in rank to the other plenary speakers – faced some tough questions, especially on the subject of China’s nine-dashed line that lays claim to most of the South China Sea. His answer, in effect that UNCLOS was trumped by China’s historic claims, is unlikely to have found favour with any international lawyer or to have set at rest the minds of competing claimants.

This year’s Dialogue was to some degree a dialogue of the deaf, at least with respect to those who have now become the key actors, whose exchanges were characterised by a degree of tone-deafness. Referring to Abe’s keynote address, one delegate observed that he had never heard anyone espousing peace in quite such an aggressive manner. The United States’ approach towards China was brutal in its frankness. And China, as so often happens, failed to explain itself to anyone’s satisfaction, confusing explanation with assertion.

But the battle lines were unmistakable in their clarity. China’s vision for Asia-Pacific security is a Sinocentric one that sees no place for the US, or any other extra-regional power, a point implicit in a question addressed to France’s Defence Minister by a PLA officer. This was very much the vision set out by China’s President Xi Jinping in a recent speech in Shanghai. For it to happen, Beijing has to work to establish facts on the ground in areas like the South China Sea and to eat away at the network of bilateral alliances established by the US with surrounding states, a network Beijing characterises as emblematic of an outdated Cold War mind-set.  Circumstances may, in the long term, be on Beijing’s side.

The other thing Beijing has to do is to win an information war, which is something to be conducted on a daily basis, not just in time of actual conflict. At present it is not clear that Beijing is winning that war. The PLA has always been a reluctant participant in a Shangri-La Dialogue it sees as a Western construct and a place where the PLA leadership puts itself at risk of ambush and embarrassment. As General Wang’s predecessor discovered, a failure to be seen vigorously espousing China’s national interest can elicit a wave of ultranationalist sentiment on Chinese social media that can translate into adverse career consequences. It was not an error General Wang can be accused of having committed. It remains to be seen whether in coming years China will continue its established policy of underrepresentation at Shangri-La, or whether it will attempt to seize the initiative through higher-level representation. Either way, participants in the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue can congratulate themselves on witnessing the prologue to a drama that will fundamentally shape the future of the Asia-Pacific region and the world.

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