The Shangri-La dialogue gets under way after a year that has seen not just growing maritime tensions in the Asia-Pacific, but also unanswered questions about the future of some of the key relationships in the region.
Shangri-La dialogue: China’s rising power in spotlight
Late May in Singapore. The United States’ newest warship – the USS Freedom – is tied up alongside at the Changi Naval Base and defence ministers from around the region are heading for the opulent Shangri-La Hotel. The region’s only annual security forum – the Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) – is back in town.
It gets under way after a year that has seen not just growing maritime tensions but also unanswered questions about the future of some of the key relationships in the region, not least the all-encompassing strategic encounter between the United States and a rising China.
The Director General and Chief Executive of the IISS, John Chipman, told me that such tensions were becoming all too frequent.
“Every year seems to produce an awful lot of tension in the Asia-Pacific,” he says.
“Certainly in the last four or five years, we have been confronted by North Korean missile tests or launches and all sorts of controversy over the South China Sea – the East China Sea this year has been particularly busy,” he notes.
“So the Shangri-La Dialogue offers an opportunity,” he argues, “to pause the button for a moment and have all the defence ministers of the region and those who have a stake in Asia-Pacific security to discuss what the problems are and how they might begin to address them more effectively.
“We started this dialogue in 2002,” he explains, “because there was no place where defence ministers of the Asia-Pacific region could meet.”
The Shangri-La Dialogue, he insists, “is always there to stretch the envelope to ensure that as many countries who have a stake in Asian-Pacific security do meet at least once a year”.
Maritime tensions, territorial disputes in Asia’s contested waters and unease at a more robust and assertive China will all figure as part of the debate.
So, too, will charges of Chinese hacking raised most recently in the United States and Australia. An expert meeting on cyber-security is one of the few sessions that will be strictly off the record.
The Dialogue will see a host of bilateral ministerial meetings in the margins of the conference.
The new US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel – who had a key role in backing the establishment of the dialogue over 10 years ago – will hold trilateral meetings with the defence ministers of South Korea and Japan, and separately with Australia and Japan.
Secretary Hagel will also be visiting the USS Freedom – a ship which symbolises Washington’s pivot or re-balancing towards the Asia-Pacific, after more than a decade of wars focused upon Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Freedom is the first of a new class of vessel – controversial because it has had so many teething problems – but nonetheless a sign of where US naval power is heading.
It’s a ship that can operate for extended periods away from its home port – the Freedom will be in Singapore for some 10 months.
It is small and agile, intended to carry out a range of functions, from surface warfare to mine-counter-measures and anti-submarine warfare.
Its shallow draft enables it to operate close to shore, hence its name: the Littoral Combat ship. It’s a vessel intended to operate alongside the ships of Washington’s allies in the region.
US spokesmen insist that the re-balancing towards Asia has a diplomatic and economic aspect every bit as important as its military dimension.
But it is the military side that has caught Beijing’s attention. It is increasingly concerned by the “pivot” which many Chinese analysts see as a thinly-disguised attempt to contain China’s rising power.
When President Xi Jinping of China heads to California next week for a summit with his US counterpart, he will be looking for a new strategic relationship with Washington. By this, the Chinese mean a willingness on the part of the US to accept China’s growing regional role.
China will also be represented here at the Shangri-La Dialogue, not by its defence minister, but by the deputy chief of Staff of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo (a man who, John Chipman of the IISS is quick to point out, has ministerial status in the Chinese system. He also happens to be China’s head of military intelligence).
China, the IISS director general told me, says that it “values the Shangri-La dialogue as independent, fair and open”.
“The IISS,” he notes, perhaps a little mischievously, “looks forward to the day when the chairman of the Central Military Commission, that is to say, the Chinese president, might deliver the keynote address here.”
While insisting that it wants more co-operation with Beijing, there is no sign that the White House is willing to give up its position as the dominant military player in the Asia-Pacific.
Analysts fear that mutual suspicions between the US and China risk stoking tensions in a region which, at times, already resembles a maritime tinder box.