SPEAKING FREELY US-China shadow boxing at Shangri-La
By Abhijit Singh
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Against the backdrop of maritime tensions in the Asia-Pacific, and many unanswered questions about the future of key relationships in the region, the Shangri-La dialogue was held in Singapore recently. As expected, the conference focused on the search for a modus vivendi on maritime territorial disputes in East and Southeast Asia - a working agreement that has so far eluded the region.
In the past 12 months, there has been an escalation in tensions in the region with China flexing its muscles to preserve an upper-hand in its various territorial conflicts. China has in the recent past
used its naval ships and aircraft to intimidate neighboring countries including Japan, Philippines and Vietnam which are in dispute with Beijing over maritime rights.
Proposals to resolve key issues in the maritime realm, including consultation and dialogue on the issue of a code of conduct at sea in East Asia, haven't found much success as disputants have shown neither the will, nor the gumption to seriously begin substantive consultations.
Admittedly, regional countries have had many opportunities to discuss contentious issues in the maritime realm. But while a lot of verbal sparring has occurred, little has accrued in terms of results. The Shangri-la dialogue has been a key platform for consultations among the various players in East Asia. The forum is considered unique because of its open and relaxed ambience where high level delegations candidly discuss national positions on vexed regional issues such as maritime territorial conflicts and security patrols off contested territory.
Given the importance this forum now commands, the hard tactics on display by the "big-two", US and China, weren't entirely unexpected. The manner in which the diplomatic duels unfolded though did cause some surprise. Unlike on the previous two occasions, when they seemed to be caught off-guard at Shangri-La, the Chinese delegation came well prepared this time.
To begin with, they were present in sufficient strength and appeared confident and self-assured about their position on various issues. The intention to mount a charm offensive was clear from the start as the principle Chinese delegate, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), General Qi Jianqou, spoke earnestly and eloquently about China's preference for regional amity. "Peace, development, cooperation and win-win", Qi observed, is what China sought in the region. When it came to addressing territorial disputes, however, he displayed old steel, dismissing the possibility of greater accommodation by Beijing on the issue. China, Qi said, was sure about its position on maritime sovereignty issues and would not compromise under any circumstances.
For China, the key issue of debate is the revitalized American strategic posture in East Asia. For some time now, the communist regime has been concerned about the US "rebalance" to the Pacific - a move it feels is clearly aimed at containing China. Qi's speech hinted at the development of a Chinese counter-strategy.
The plan is apparently a four pronged one: Chinese deference to international law to the extent as is absolutely required; reinvigorate Beijing's economic relations in Southeast Asia; be respectful to contrary views on China's professed "peaceful development" model; and absolute firmness in sticking to its old postures on territorial disputes. So when a delegate questioned him on China's assertive posturing in its maritime neighborhood, Qi's response belied his own pleasing rhetoric: "the reason China constantly patrols the South China Sea and East Sea is because China considers this to be sovereign territory".
Not surprisingly, China seemed unwilling to concede the use of legal arbitration to resolve disputes, even as the US and Japan revealed plans for a renewal of efforts in resisting all attempts to seize contested territory by force.
The Chinese delegation, in fact, appeared resentful of the stance adopted by the US Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel, who said there was a strong need for the US to strengthen its alliances in the Asia Pacific. The temptation to interpret Hagel's talking points in conjunction with the Japanese Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera's assertive pronouncements must have been irresistible for the Chinese. The Japanese minister made a hard-hitting speech in which he laid out the rationale for Japan's strategic expansion and a review of its pacifist mindset.
If all this wasn't enough, Hagel's accusations of cyber strikes on key American security sites from China further grated on fraught Chinese nerves. The US position on cyber-security, appears to be an adjunct to its central concern over China's growing power and influence in East Asia. A section of the US security establishment now believes that if enough resolve is not shown to keep America's Asian alliances together, individual countries may gravitate towards China.
To keep its primacy intact, the US needs to reassure its Asian allies that budget cuts won't derail the US commitment to their security. Hagel sought to distract attention from America's fiscal dire-straits by emphasizing new and transformational US defense capabilities, including the use of lasers to defend ships at sea and remotely piloted aircraft on aircraft carriers.
Whether or not his description of the US' military commitment to Asia instilled any confidence in America's skeptical Asian allies, at least one Chinese delegate challenged him on the credibility of his assertion of the rebalance not being a "China containment" measure. There is speculation that Gen Qi himself, adopted a moderate stance on the US rebalance so as not to spoil the atmosphere before President Xi Jinping's forthcoming visit to the US, but clearly the Chinese were less than satisfied with the US' justification of greater strategic presence in East Asia.
The most significant interjection of the conference is supposed to have come from a Chinese Colonel who said China had now reviewed its stand on maritime surveillance in other countries' EEZ. China, he suggested, had been working on a plan to counter US' aggressive maritime surveillance off its Eastern and Southern waters by sending its own maritime assets to survey the waters off America's Pacific territories.
The commentary that has since followed this revelation has construed it to be a sign of China's gradual acceptance of international norms in maritime affairs. Such judgments may be premature. China has always interpreted the UNCLOS in a manner beneficial to its own interests in East Asia.
If it has indeed revisited its stand on maritime law, it is unlikely to have done so without a careful consideration of the attendant implications. For one, it raises the possibility of confrontation between China and other regional powers - a situation Beijing would doubtless be keen to avoid. Such a stand also seemingly contradicts China's claims on its maritime initiatives being "entirely peaceful".
In any case, a proactive strategy of PLA's naval presence in the waters off the US' Pacific territories may not be as real a prospect as China would have the US believe. The waters off Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States are still too distant for operations by the PLA Navy.
Notwithstanding the shadow boxing between the principle players, the conference did promote the cause of maritime diplomacy, as many sane and sober voices urged equanimity and restraint in the region. In his keynote address Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, called on regional nations to responsibly reinforce "strategic trust". Australia's Defense Minister, Stephen Smith, acknowledged military modernization as being a natural part of any country's economic development, but called for greater "strategic transparency" in the region.
In a first, India was represented at the forum by its naval chief, Admiral DK Joshi, as Defense Minister, AK Antony, was due to start a tour of Singapore, Thailand and Australia. Admiral Joshi, reportedly, spoke on incidents at sea and the need to assess maritime intent. It was not "unintended incidents" at sea, but "intended ones", he noted perceptively, that are a cause for real worry.
China and the US would do well to heed the wise counsel.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation at New Delhi. He looks at geopolitical developments in South Asia, and littoral security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). He has written extensively on maritime issues in South Asia, including research papers on the Iranian and Pakistani naval forces, and "India's developing expeditionary capabilities".