14.06.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The results of the Regular Shangri-La Dialogue

8024211On May 29-31 the (14th) session of the Shangri-La Dialogue took place in Singapore, which since 2002 has regularly been held under the auspices of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies – one of the leading think tanks specializing in the assessment of the status and prospects of development of the political map of the world.

The forum was initiated to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific Region. Its main participants are Ministers of Defense or high-ranking officials of the military departments of the leading countries in the region such as China, Japan, the US, Russia, India, Australia and others.

For over ten years, the Shangri-La Dialogue has become one of the most important policy platforms in the Asia-Pacific region, that is attended and one’s vision of key regional problems is stated, it is considered essential by responsible representatives of all the major players.

Based on the content of their presentations, one can accurately judge the state of security problems in the Asia-Pacific Region as a whole, and of its current main “painful points”.

Another escalation of the situation in the South China Sea (SCS) has appeared in the centre of the current debate, with its causes characterized in the opposite way by the representatives of the US and China, that is, two major regional players.

The last phase of the rise in tensions began just a few months after last summer’s seemingly successful resolution of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict in the Paracel Islands situated in the northern part of the SCS. It was caused by drilling exploration operations which were carried out by the Chinese company CNPC in April-May 2014 to assess the prospects of expansion of commercial production of hydrocarbons in one of numerous zones of the SCS, ownership of which is disputed between China and its southern neighbours.

Chinese and Vietnamese border patrol ships clashing in the area of drilling operations resulted in a wave of anti-Chinese riots throughout Vietnam. In June, a Chinese drilling rig was withdrawn from the conflict zone and mutual passions gradually settled. The incident was put to rest, as it seemed, by the visit in late October to Hanoi of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of China and his negotiations with his Vietnamese counterpart. The symbol of the normalization of bilateral relations were strong public handshakes and smiles of the two high-level government officials.

However, only a month later several satellite images of coral islands in the Spratly archipelago (located in the central and southern SCS) appeared in the Western press, where rock filling operations were taking place. The analysis of the photos indicated that there are some ground structures and something that looks like a runway on the land reclaimed from the sea.

This information caused another burst of negative emotions in Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and, most importantly, in the US, located 12 thousand km away from the conflict zone. Lately it has increasingly positioned itself as the main defender of the sovereignty of small countries, which have become “the object of attacks” on the part of other major international players.

All-round (including military) assistance to “the offended” is given under the pretext of enforcement of international law and, in particular, the freedom of navigation in the SCS, where the biggest international trade route lies.

In Washington’s official statements “on the inadmissibility of unilateral actions” in the disputed areas it appears that the US’ intentions are to ensure the effectiveness of international law and through it its own military presence in the SCS. At the same time, it seems to imply a more or less permanent presence as periodically American warships have long come here.

The first act in this direction was US intelligence aircraft flights in the area mentioned above Spratlys, i.e. over the territory, which Beijing regards as an integral part of China. And it is making the prospects of direct military confrontation between the two major world powers real.

Actually, the said prospects, as well as mutual accusations of provoking it, have become one of the main subject of altercations at the Shangri-La Dialogue between the US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the head of the Chinese delegation Admiral Sun Jianguo – deputy chief of staff of the PLA. Ashton Carter urged China to stop all construction work on the Spratly Islands and reiterated the US’ intention “to continue its non-provocative presence” in the SCS. In this sense “non-provocative” was not defined.

The speech by the Chinese representative included three main points, which have been officially stated recently by Beijing. Of these, the first one is the statement “China’s inalienable right to do on their own territory that is deemed necessary.”

Second, the clarification was made that the ongoing works on the Spratly Islands are aimed precisely at ensuring the freedom of navigation in the SCS that supposedly the US is so worried about. Finally, it was again noted that interference from “outside regional forces” in solving the problems in China’s relations with its southern neighbours is counter-productive.

The head of the Chinese delegation did not ignore the often played up issue of the possible development in the airspace over the SCS of its analogue of the Air Defenсe Identification Zone (ADIZ) by the Ministry of Defenсe of China, which at the end of 2013 appeared over a considerable part of the East China Sea.

Admiral Sun noted that so far such assumptions were “unfounded.” At the same time, he made it clear that the prospect of China’s ADIZ also over the SCS will be entirely determined by the nature of development of military-political situation there.

Perhaps the only positive aspect of the most recent Shangri-La Dialogue is the fact that the start of negotiations took place in its arena between Admiral Sun Jianguo and Deputy Minister of Defense of Japan Hidesi Tokuchi.

Commentators say the benevolent atmosphere that accompanied the negotiations culminated in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in the area of measures to prevent collisions at sea and in the air. Such events seem to be very relevant in terms of the continued tensions over the Senkaku / Diaoyu.

This is an important event in bilateral relations which are developing in very controversial manner. Hopefully what the positive impulse noted above and other recent positive impulses will be further developed. For the list of factors determining the situation in the SCS (and in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole), it is likely that the prospect of the Japan-China relations comes to the fore.

In general, the Shangri-La Dialogue accurately reflected the particularly difficult situation developing in the SCS and the APR as a whole. The basic features of these components remains the strengthening of competition in the system of US-China relations.

It is unlikely that Ashton Carter’s visit to Hanoi the day after the forum in Singapore could trigger positive emotions in Beijing. The visit resulted in signing of the Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations by both defense ministers. What this will mean in practice, only the future can show.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.