Southeast Asian countries are being caught in-between the rivalry of two major powers. The U.S. and China have utilized this year’s prestigious Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore to woo ASEAN countries and trade barbs with each other and promote their respective views on the dispute over ‘rule of law’ and ‘right of might’.
The forum, which was organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies from June 10–12 at the Shangri-La Hotel, was attended by more than 500 ministers, military generals, government officials, scholars and journalists from 42 countries.
Most discussions clustered around two dominant topics – the ongoing war in Ukraine and growing strategic competition between the U.S. and China. Both powers strive to dominate the world through trade, investments, loans and weapons.
In his keynote address at the SLD, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned about the dangers of a war by saying that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”. He vowed to expand Japan’s diplomatic and security roles in Asia as he outlined his vision for an open, free and peaceful Indo-Pacific region.
Kishida said that Japan was committed to “realism diplomacy for a new era” in which it will “be more proactive than ever in tackling the challenges and crises that face Japan, Asia and the world”. He further explained that Japan faces the impact of Russia’s invasion, China’s growing maritime assertiveness and North Korea’s development of new missiles and nuclear weapons. In addition, Kishida pledged to strengthen the rules-based international order.
“I will seek to build a stable international order through dialogue, not confrontation. At the same time, however, we must be prepared for the emergence of an entry that tramples on the peace and security of other countries by force or threat without honouring the rules”, Kishida said.
He also emphasized that Japan is committed to maintaining good relations with China.
Rules-based order in Asia and the world became the main topic of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue. However, who exactly has been breaking the laws?
Everybody knows that China is not honouring international maritime rules in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea. It signed and ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Yet, it refuses to follow the UNCLOS and claims more than 90 percent of the SCS based on its controversial Nine-Dashed Line map.
On Feb. 11 of this year, the White House unveiled its new strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”, which pledges support for regional connectivity, trade and investment, and deepening bilateral and multilateral partnerships.
During his speech on Saturday morning (June 11), U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin lashed at China’s coercive and aggressive actions in the East and South China Seas, which he said has posed a threat to regional stability. He vowed that the U.S. would stand by its partners to resist Chinese pressure.
“Indo-Pacific countries shouldn’t face political intimidation, economic coercion, or harassment by maritime militias,” Austin said. “The PRC’s moves threaten to undermine security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”
He was referring to China as PRC (People’s Republic of China, which is China’s official name).
Austin stated that the U.S. wants a free and open Indo-Pacific region that is based on rule of law that respects the sovereignty of other countries.
“We seek a region free of aggression and bullying, a world that respects territorial integrity and political independence, that expands human rights and human dignity and a world in which all countries – large and small – are free to thrive and lawfully pursue their interests, free from coercion and intimidation,” he elaborated.
According to Austin, the Indo-Pacific is the U.S.’ priority theater of operations and is at the heart of American grand strategy. “We’re taking our defense cooperation with Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam to the next level”.
He added that maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is not just a U.S. interest. It is a matter of international concern. The U.S. respects ASEAN centrality and the sovereignty of ASEAN countries. Austin clearly outlined that the U.S. is not seeking a conflict in Asia.
“So, let me be clear. We do not seek confrontation or conflict, and we do not seek a new Cold War, an Asian NATO, or a region split into hostile blocs. We will defend our interests without flinching, but we’ll also work toward our vision for this region – one of expanding security and increased cooperation, not one of growing division,” Austin said. “Friendships in the Indo-Pacific go back many, many decades. We seek inclusion, not division. We seek cooperation, not strife”.
Surprisingly, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, like Austin, spoke about international peace, rule of law, ASEAN centrality and countries’ sovereignty. He unveiled China’s strategy to counter the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S. at the SLD.
In his speech on Sunday (June 12), Wei sought to project an image of China as a peaceful rising power. Ironically, ‘peace’ was the most mentioned word in Wei’s speech as he extolled China’s ‘peaceful development’ and claimed that China has never invaded any country since its founding.
This had to be the biggest lie a senior Chinese official ever told at an international forum. China invaded India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979. It annexed East Turkistan Republic in 1949 and Tibet in 1951. China was also the first country to use force against South Vietnam to occupy the Paracel Islands in the SCS in 1974. In 1988, it seized control of the Johnson South Reef by force from Vietnam.
Moreover, China had intruded into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia many times. It illegally built artificial islands in the SCS and converted them into military facilities.
Wei said that China will not hesitate to retaliate if provoked by others.
“The China-U.S. relationship is at a critical and crucial juncture,” Wei said. “It is a historic and strategic mistake to take China as a threat or enemy. We call on the U.S. side to stop smearing and containing China, interfering in China’s internal affairs and harming China’s interests. Our bilateral relationship cannot improve until the U.S. side can do that.”
Wei also issued a strong warning about the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan with China at the SLD. “If anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China – let me be clear – we will not hesitate to fight,” he said. “We will fight at all costs, and we will fight to the very end.”
He claimed that China wants to respect international rules and the sovereignty of other countries as well as cooperate with all SCS claimants. This, of course, is another lie. China is the biggest violator of international rules and has encroached upon the sovereignty of several Southeast Asian nations. Wei has also admitted that the goal of China’s nuclear arsenal is to prevent nuclear war.
In a nutshell, many of Wei’s words did not match the reality. China is a troublemaker in Asia and poses a great danger to the world.
In response to China’s unilateral and coercive acts in the SCS and East China Sea, the U.S. created the Quad with Japan, India and Australia in 2017. It is not a military alliance. However, the AUKUS is and involves Australia, the UK and the U.S.
These developments are certainly worrisome for China, which has denounced the Indo-Pacific strategy as an attempt to build ‘exclusive groups’ or ‘small circles’ to contain China. Yet, Beijing is following the same paradox of seeking to amass power in the name of maintaining peace.
Meanwhile, ASEAN countries have adopted the neutrality policy and expressed their willingness to work with both the U.S. and China. This was clearly revealed in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which was adopted by all ASEAN countries in 2019. All claimant countries from ASEAN want to resolve their disputes with China through peaceful negotiations based on the 1982 UNCLOS and other international rules.
“In terms of disputes over sovereignty in the East Sea, we (Vietnam) stick to the principle of settling disputes and disagreements by peaceful means on the basis of respecting the independence, sovereignty and legitimate interests of countries, complying with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), pledging to strictly implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) and striving to build a substantive, effective and efficient Code of Conduct (COC) in the East Sea in line with international law,” Vietnam’s Defense Minister Pan Van Giang said at the SLD.
Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana raised legitimate concerns over competing resources for ‘guns versus ploughs’ and ‘bullets versus butter’, while Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto proposed an Asian way as an alternative to power politics.
Peaceful negotiations must be given a priority to resolve disputes. Overall, the SLD was useful in bringing rivals to one forum to talk.
Veeramalla Anjaiah is a Jakarta-based senior journalist and the author of the book “Azerbaijan Seen from Indonesia