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Shangri-La 2019: Dialogue of the Deaf and Undercurrents in the South China Sea
Originally written in Vietnamese for SOHA and translated by Ms Hoang Thi Ha
US-China intensifying strategic rivalry cast a long shadow over the Shangri-La Dialogue 2019, setting the stage for key speeches and Q&A discussions at the region’s security summit. US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick M Shanahan took this opportunity to highlight the allocated resources and specific steps to carry out the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. Meanwhile, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe persisted with the Asia-Pacific outlook, and conveyed an unflinching message to the US: “A talk? Welcome. A fight? Ready. Bully us? No way.” Although both Ministers expressed willingness to continue the dialogue and avoid conflict and war, some observers described this as “a dialogue of the deaf” due to the growing divergences between both sides on key security challenges and the future of the regional order.
ASEAN’s success formula is under stress
In his Keynote Address at Shangri-La, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a candid observation about the deepening chasm between the US and China and called upon the two great powers to exercise restraint, build trust, and work together “to bring the global system up to date” and not to upend it. However, Singapore’s voice – as well as those of other small and middle powers – is in the danger of being drowned as US-China rivalry drums louder and nationalism waves are riding high from both shores of the Pacific. Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 features three different visions of the changing regional order which perceives history, international law and regional cooperation from three vantage points
For the US, its presence as a Pacific power has a long-standing history which dates back to 1784 when American merchant ship Empress of China opened commercial ties with China, paving the way for US engagement with countries in the region over the past two centuries through war and peace, as enemies and then as allies and partners. For China, Asia’s recent history was punctuated with invasions by the colonial powers who divided the region into their respective spheres of influence. This past still informs Chinese contemporary worldview when Minister Wei mounted a fierce criticism against the interference of foreign powers into regional affairs, especially with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
For Singapore and other ASEAN member states, “Southeast Asia is no stranger to the great game of nations” as stated by Mr Lee. But through the trials and errors from this experience, regional countries have found the key to success: opening their economy to global integration, and at the same time opening Southeast Asia to engagement by all powers from within and outside of the region through dialogue and cooperation, thereby preserving both national and regional strategic autonomy and thriving economically together. However, this success formula has come under stress and strain from US-China strategic competition. While the US continues to assert itself as a “resident power” in Asia, China increasingly sees American presence as an unwelcome intrusion from outside.
Undercurrents in the South China Sea
The call for compliance with international law was loud in many policy statements at Shangri-La. But even more stark was the stubbornly divergent interpretations and applications of international law on specific issues, especially with regard to the on-going developments in the South China Sea. From China’s point of view, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) by US naval vessels and those of its allies, e.g. Australia, France and the UK, are in breach of littoral states’ domestic laws and regulations as well the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS). To Beijing, these are “the most destabilising and uncertain factors in the South China Sea.” Chinese interpretation is a far cry from the position by the US and many other countries with regard to the right of innocent passage in the territorial waters and the freedom of navigation and overflights in the maritime commons as stipulated by UNCLOS.
All ASEAN member states uphold the principle of freedom of navigation and overflight but many of them are reluctant to publicly support FONOPS, partly for fear of China’s consternation and partly out of the concern that they may be dragged into a US-China armed collision at sea. However, regional countries would find it more and more difficult to maintain this ambivalence when the US has increased the scope and frequency of its FONOPS while China’s response becomes more intense.
The game of definition regarding the law of the sea also played out on the term “militarisation of the South China Sea.” Minister Wei insisted that Chinese building of “limited defense facilities on the islands and reefs” cannot be construed as “militarisation” because “it is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory.” This argument is based on China’s presumption that it owns all those features in the SCS. Minister Wei also turned “militarisation” on its head by condemning the FONOPS and naval exercises by the US and its allies as militarisation which prompted China to build up its facilities in the South China Sea for self-defence purpose.
Minister Wei described the situation in the South China Sea as all good and calm except for occasional stir-up by external parties’ naval operations. He also lauded progress in the on-going negotiations on a code of conduct (COC) with ASEAN. However, some delegates at Shangri-La pointed out aggressive undercurrents behind the “calm waters” pictured by China. The most forthright observation was made by Acting Secretary Shanahan that “nations are unable to make use of natural resources within their exclusive economic zones” and “fishermen’s livelihoods are in peril as they are denied access to waters they and their ancestors have fished for generations.” He further noted that “We can’t wish away reality or continue to look the other way as countries use friendly rhetoric to distract from unfriendly acts.” Others expressed concerns over the COC possibly being used as a tool by Beijing to seal off the South China Sea from outsiders, and thus requested that the future code be compatible with international law. ASEAN should heed these concerns during its negotiations on the COC.
Agency in the age of heightened rivalry
Apart from the South China Sea disputes, worries over the negative impacts of the US-China trade and tech war to the region’s economies overshadowed other security concerns at Shangri-La, driving home the inextricable nexus between economics and security. In this respect, when asked about Singapore’s plan to roll out its 5G network, Prime Minister Lee gave a well-rounded response that every system will have vulnerabilities and thus one needs to have trust in order to use the system. Trust is to be earned not only from meeting all technical safeguards but also from the behaviour of the origin country which must be seen as responsible and in compliance with international law and norms.
Mr Lee also echoed the concerns of ASEAN which increasingly finds itself sandwiched between a rock and a hard place. ASEAN’s traditional bridging role is under great pressure as the US and China are marching far down the road towards parting ways. It is uncertain whether its usual talking points – building an open and inclusive regional order, making no binary choice and being a friend to all – would be able to arrest the headwinds facing the region, especially the reallocation of the global supply chains as the world economy and technology are on the cusp of bifurcating into two separate systems.
ASEAN’s voice however is not a lonely one. Together with other partners, especially other powers like Japan, India, ROK and Australia, ASEAN has persisted in its joint efforts to preserve the rules-based regional order and the open multilateral trading system. The CPTPP which entered into force last year and the RCEP which is hoped to be concluded by the end of this year are the two landmarks that keep Southeast Asia motivated and steady on the path of openness, cooperation and integration. This is also the concluding message of Mr Lee’s Keynote Address – that this region is not without agency even in this age of heightened rivalry.