Annual Shangri La-Dialogues, held in Singapore under the auspices of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, are the focus of New Eastern Outlook’s (NEO) steadfast attention, with their scheduled 17th round taking place on 1-3 June this year.
It is one of the most influential international forums, covering topics such as security in the Indo Pacific region where the burden of all the global and political processes shifts to. Delegations, often headed by state officials of the highest rank, participate in the forum.
Reports, presented at the forum, cover topics that can help one formulate a more or less informed opinion about the security issues and their evolution in the Indo Pacific (as a whole and in the region’s conflict zones) over a course of a year. This year, the Rohingya refugee issue, covered by NEO on a number of occasions, made it to the forum’s agenda.
Attendance by high-level officials and their speeches marks each forum. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was, unquestionably, at the center of the gathering and his keynote address opened the forum for discussions.
According to experts, Modi’s participation in the Shangri La Dialogue 2018 alone, signals India’s growing political engagement in the region. Modi’s trip to Singapore became part of the Indian Prime Minister’s tour, which includes visits to Indonesia and Malaysia.
Having noted the “normalcy” in uniting the political and regional space of the Indo Pacific into one whole (covering regions from the “shores of America to those of Africa”) and India’s multifaceted role in these ongoing processes, Modi talked about seven key points:
- the Indo Pacific must be “a free, open, inclusive” region, accessible to all the countries in the world;
- at the heart of the Indo Pacific is the Southeast Asian subregion whose affairs the ten ASEAN nations must and will play a central role in;
- problems in the region must be solved through dialogue, based on the rule of law and respect for the territorial integrity of its participants, and never by force;
- there is growing emphasis on respecting existing laws and ensuring free access to maritime routes and air space in the region;
- globalization of the world economic ties has benefited the region while protectionism has played a negative role in it. India supports the ongoing process of establishing “the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” (involving ASEAN nations + Australia, India, China, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan) and will continue to endorse the work by banks, founded by China and the BRICS member states;
- positive developmental trends in Asia remain a possibility as long “as the age of great power rivalries do not return”. Still, the spirit of competition does not hinder and instead boosts the chances of these prospects turning into a reality.
Generally speaking, such ideas have been voiced by the Indian leadership before. However, along with complimentary statements towards China and Russia, made at the start of Modi’s keynote address, his remarks possibly marked a crucial shift in Modi’s foreign policy course, aimed at reinforcing its independent (self-sufficient, according to the speaker’s own words) foreign policy direction.
This course, set at the beginning of this year, took on a clear shape during the meeting with the Chinese leader in Wuhan in April and, apparently, its aim is to ensure that India distances itself from the dangerous “idea” of falling into the US “friendly embrace” and joining its anti-Beijing coalition of “four” (also involving Japan and Australia).
It is worth mentioning that Modi’s keynote address has been positively received in China, where a clear change in India’s foreign policy direction towards it has stirred up discussion.
However, the third and fourth points of this address can point to India’s hidden opposition to China’s policies in Southeast Asia, first and foremost in the South China Sea, as is evidenced by the Indian Prime Minister’s phrases, typical of the rhetoric espoused by American officials towards the “Chinese expansion” in this region.
This is the reason why, as we had noted earlier, there is no sense in waiting for a quick miracle in the recently-started process of improving Sino-Indian relations, and the possibility of its gradual improvement will certainly be a positive development.
Seemingly, direct proof of the aforementioned trend in the Indian foreign policy course was the absence of a discussion about the anti-Chinese Washington-led coalition at the forum, versus quite a noticeable inclusion of this topic at the Shangri-La Dialogue a year ago.
At present, turning the idea behind a coalition into reality is also hindered by positive shifts in the relations between PRC and Japan. Even in Australia, the current conservative leadership has also begun to express the need to improve its relations with Beijing. This, in turn, was followed by a statement that such “pro-Chinese” rhetoric is not solely motivated by immediate concerns about the Australian parliamentary elections in a year’s time, where the actually pro-Chinese Labor party may emerge victorious.
At any rate, Washington decided to relegate its anti-Chinese coalition project to a dusty shelf, from where it emerged two and a half years ago and continue its military deterrence of China alone for the most part. Such deterrence was on display both before and immediately after the last Shangri-La Dialogue.
The end of May saw passage of two American ships within 12 miles from one of the islands in the Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea. The US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis commented on this using the same entrenched phrases about the need to ensure “freedom of navigation near the disputed islands”.
On June 5, Reuters reported that Pentagon was considering sending US war ships, including an assault ship, to Taiwanese waters, supposedly through the Taiwan Strait.
The latest provocation can be equated to a “foul”, when the key importance of the Taiwanese issue in China’s foreign policy is taken into account. The aforementioned plans are also linked to the ongoing difficult negotiations on preventing a Sino-American trade war.
China will not be invited to participate in the international naval exercises RIMPAC-2018, held by the US Pacific Command twice a year, 6although in 2014 and 2016, PRC’s naval forces took part in such exercises.
All of these American activities served as a backdrop to and showcased the key messages in the speech made at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 by Jim Mattis, who, as last year, emphasized “the importance” of the US multifaceted presence in the Indo Pacific.
This time around, his emphasis on US obligations to support Taiwan’s defense capabilities at a necessary level was particularly noteworthy in his address. The US openly expressed its “opposition to any unilateral moves aimed at disrupting the status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. According to Jim Mattis, any existing disagreements have to be resolved with due consideration of peoples’ wishes (i.e. of those living on both sides of the Taiwan Strait)
Overall, the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s remarks confirmed suspicions that the so-called “Korea” issue may be shifted from the Korean Peninsula to Taiwan and then to the South China Sea.
Primarily, this conclusion is linked to the author’s impressions of the results from the latest Shangri-La Dialogues, which can be broadly summed up as follows, along with the positive trends in China’s relations with practically all of its neighbors, further escalation in the confrontation between PRC and its main geopolitical rival are observed.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific Region issues, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”