China emerges victorious at Shangri-La dialogue

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 22, 2019 02:45 hrs

[ANI]: The Shangri-La Dialogue, held annually in Singapore, brings together defense ministers, military leaders, academia, media, and others to discuss pressing issues in the Asian region. North Korea typically features, and this year a special session was dedicated to the South Pacific for the first time, but usually, the drawcard for pundits is tense Sino-US relations.

For 2019, the Chinese delegation was led by none other than Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe, the first time since 2011 that a Chinese minister has attended the Shangri-La Dialogue.

However, this year the marked differences in position by China compared to everybody else were sharper than ever before. While the USA took a conciliatory approach, and ASEAN members negotiated a perfect middle course between the great-power rivalry, China brushed aside any olive branches and continued its individualistic and stubborn route.

On 1 June, US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan featured in the first plenary session. However, the 'acting' part of his title probably scuttled any chance of a strong rebuttal of China even before he set foot in Singapore. The tone was set by his deferential remarks to US Senate Armed Service Committee members and senators in the audience, who will be attending his confirmation hearing in Washington within a matter of weeks. Shanahan could not afford to rock the boat given his probationary status and the fact that the USA is already engaged in a bitter feud with China over trade.

In fact, the content of Shanahan's speech was somewhat disappointing. There were expectations that the USA would roll out a stronger and more sophisticated Indo-Pacific strategy in Singapore. Indeed, the US Department of Defense(DoD) carefully timed the rollout its "Indo-Pacific Strategy Report" for that very day.

That report contains more robust allegations against China than did anything uttered by Shanahan in the chandeliered meeting hall of the Shangri-La Hotel. He insisted the DoD's three-year-old Indo-Pacific strategy is stronger because it has the full support of President Donald Trump and the Congress. "We have continuity, and this continuity is propelling us forward. Our direction is unambiguous...The strategy is much more than words. The strategy underpins the department's budget and drives our resourcing. We have more than a strategy. We have a plan."

As to be expected, there was much talk about a free and open Indo-Pacific and adherence to a rules-based order. Shanahan went so far as to point out that "some" are breaking those norms. "Acknowledging those actions is not enough; we also need to extrapolate the trend line and recognize the likely future we arrive at if we do not act to call out disruptive actors and take a stand against the challenges to regional order."

However, it was halfway through Shanahan's speech before the name China even passed his lips. Interestingly, General Wei was not present during the US defense secretary's speech.

Without explicitly naming China, he described behaviors from "a toolkit of coercion" such as deploying "advanced weapons systems to militarize disputed areas, destabilizing the peaceful status quo by threatening the use of force to compel rivals into conceding claims; using influence operations to interfere in the domestic politics of other nations, undermining the integrity of elections and threatening internal stability; engaging in predatory economics and debt for sovereignty deals, lubricated by corruption, which take advantage of pressing economic needs to structure unequal bargains that disproportionately benefit one party; and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations' military and civilian technology."

The USA extended a hand of reconciliation: "I say now that China could still have a cooperative relationship with the United States. It is in China's interests to do so...We cooperate with China where we have an alignment of interests...And we compete with China where we must. But competition does not mean conflict. Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules."

What a sharp contrast this was with China's representative and the strong posturing by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) delegation. Speaking in Mandarin, Wei was on the front foot immediately when he spoke the following day.

The former PLA Rocket Force thundered - "Adversity only brings our nation greater solidarity and strength...Faced with daunting and complex security challenges, the PLA vows not to yield a single inch of the country's sacred land, but it shall not seize anything from others either. The PLA has no intention to cause anybody trouble, but it is not afraid to face up to troubles. Should anyone risk crossing the bottom line, the PLA will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies."

Such forceful sentiments were in strong contrast to the mellow and peace-loving epithets in which ASEAN defense ministers and others wrapped their speeches over the three-day Dialogue.

Naturally, Wei addressed the South China Sea tensions as well. Clearly, according to Wei, these tensions are due entirely to US freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) as, "in recent years, some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles, in the name of freedom of navigation. The large-scale force projection and offensive operations in the region are the most serious destabilizing and uncertain factors in the South China Sea."

This is the same old mantra from China and one that does not stand up to scrutiny. Such FONOPs are perfectly permissible and admissible under international regulations such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

What about the militarization of Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea, in direct contradiction to Xi's promise to President Obama in 2015? Wei asserted, "It is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory. China built limited defense facilities on the islands and reefs for self-defense. Where there are threats, there are defenses. In the face of heavily armed warships and military aircraft, how can we stay impervious and not build some defense facilities?"

There are two problems with this statement. One relates to the phrase "own territory". China says it has indisputable sovereignty over the maritime region, but everyone else disputes it vigorously. How can it be "indisputable"?Secondly, Wei conveniently got his timeline wrong too, because China was planning and building its weapon-laced artificial islands before the tempo of FONOPs by the USA and allies began increasing. This is the further development of China's carefully crafted narrative that it is simply responding to the actions of others. In fact, the opposite is true.

This was just one example of the revisionist history uttered byWei. Another example is this: "Over the past 70 years since the founding of the PRC, China has never provoked a war or conflict, nor has it ever invaded another country or taken an inch of land from others. In the future, no matter how strong it becomes, China shall never threaten anyone, seek hegemony or establish spheres of influence."

In fact, China went to war against the USA and its allies during the 1950-53 Korean War, it conducted an embarrassing invasion of Vietnam in 1979, plus it has sliced territory from India along their mountainous border.

A shocking explanation came during the question-and-answer session after his speech. The hall's occupants froze for a moment in time when someone asked about the PLA's view on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, which will have its 30th anniversary on 4 June.

Wei audaciously explained, "Thirty years have proven that under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China has entered major changes. How can you say that China didn't handle the Tiananmen incident properly?" He described it as mere "political turbulence" and that the measures are taken to stop it was absolutely "correct".

China had been suffering setbacks and pushback in its global publicity campaigns regarding the Belt and Road Initiative, South China Sea, incarceration of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, cyber theft, religious persecution, and a trade war. Likely the sending of its defense minister to the Shangri-La Dialogue was an effort to halt and turn back those losses to China's face, to take hold once again of the script.

In the face of such revisionism and belligerence, as outlined above, one might have expected a robust response from ASEAN and other nations participating in the forum.

In fact, nearly all voices were muted and few dared to even breathe the name "China", let alone specifically point out what is wrong with its behavior. Instead, they preferred to steer an uncontentious middle course through this Sino-US rivalry.

Perhaps the best example of their conundrum was Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu, who blamed both the USA and China for stoking tensions in the South China Sea but yet professed love for both. When he was asked why a China Coast Guard vessel was permitted to remain within Malaysian territorial waters at Luconia Shoals, Sabu revealingly answered, "The Chinese coast guard is bigger than Malaysia's warships. How are we going to chase them? We cannot fight with them. We will always talk to them, defend with diplomacy and respect their sovereignty."

The above perfectly encapsulates the gist of the problem. ASEAN is overawed by Chinese coercion, whether it be military, diplomatic or economic.

Of ASEAN nations, Vietnam was the most direct. After holding out an olive branch of "finding ways to handle competition", Minister of National Defense Gen Ngo Xuan Lich also spoke of the alternative. Ngo said that "if countries employ coercion, force or threat of force for resolution, we would indeed broaden the divide, deepen the dispute, fuel the rivalry and finally an inevitably give rise to the conflict".

Ngo also made a subtle dig at China regarding the South China Sea Code of Conduct, for which negotiations are underway by ASEAN and China. The Vietnamese minister said ASEAN is making a lot of effort to conclude it, but China itself needs to make a bigger effort.

France made its position relatively clear, with Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly telling a Chinese questioner: "I would like to tell you that we strongly believe in the rules-based order and we strongly believe in international law, among which is freedom of navigation. We consider that the fait accompli is clearly not in accordance with UNCLOS."

However, Australia failed to mention China even once in its presentation, and the UK gave a rather limp speech that went exactly the same way.

Of course, this problem with China is not solely a military one, as it requires neighbors and other invested nations to implement a whole-of-government approach to call out China. Even then, there seems to be a lack of will to elucidate a unified and cohesive response to Beijing.

Vague references to "cooperation", "partnership" and "acting together for the common good" are falling on deaf ears in Beijing. China, as echoed by Wei's speech, is determined to plough headlong to fulfill its destiny of greatness, no matter what others or international law say. Indeed, this year's Shangri-La Dialogue demonstrated that the gulf between the CCP's revisionist view of history and its fantastical alternate reality is wider than ever.

The spirit of appeasement seen at Singapore was not reciprocated by China, and Beijing will simply take it as a license to continue on it a stiff-necked pathway. Its modus operandi of cowing smaller nations into submission and coercing them is proving very successful. There are no penalties, and at the Dialogue, the region could again not voice a united front against Chinese bullying.

Even as General Wei Fenghe was uttering his belligerent speech in Singapore, the People's Liberation Army conducted a test launch of its new JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile in Shandong. China does mean business. (ANI)