THE annual Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) which took place early this month in Singapore was billed as a supra-regional forum for defense ministers and experts from around and beyond the Asia-Pacific region to congregate and discuss primarily but not exclusively regional security issues. In the many years that I have taken part in one way or the other in the SLD—also known as the IISS Asia Security Summit, held annually under the auspices of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore–I have seen many heated exchanges, not least over the contentious territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
There are usually two speeches which are considered the highlights of the SLD every year, and garner the most media attention. One is the opening keynote speech to be delivered by the US Secretary of Defense, who attends the SLD every year and usually lays out the US’ latest broad strategic plan for Asia-Pacific. Various “hotspots” are usually covered in this speech, among which are the US-China strategic relationship, the South China Sea issues, and the seemingly never-ending saga of the Korean Peninsula.
The other highlight is typically the first speech delivered the next day (the last day of the meeting) by the chief Chinese representative to SLD, who would similarly spell out the Chinese position on various regional and sometimes global strategic issue, and respond to some of the US contentions that were said the previous day. These two key speeches by the representatives of the two largest superpowers would typically set the tone of the “debates” taking place during a particular year’s SLD. Sometimes they even receive more attention from the participants and the media than the supposedly equally important opening gala dinner speech by a visiting head of government. And the many speeches by other security officials from around the world add to color to the conference.
China’s top SLD delegates in past meetings have included the defense minister and deputy chiefs of staff, but this year a vice head of its military science academy was sent to the forum, which thus saw its lowest level of Chinese representations in recent years. Many speculations have been advanced for this curious phenomenon. They range from the observation of the recent undulating relationship between China and Singapore (SLD’s permanent host country), to the “calm” on South China Sea lately, even to China’s desire to promote the Xiangshan Forum, its own version of SLD (which nevertheless is not taking place this year due to the all-important five-yearly party congress scheduled around the same time).
And for the first time as far as I can remember, the Chinese representative was not delivering a keynote speech in open session. As such, the heightened suspense and expectations of sharp verbal exchanges, especially between the US and China, as was plainly evident in past SLDs, were reduced to a large degree this year. Instead, all eyes and ears were on the new US secretary of defense, James Mattis, as he attempted to spell out the new Trump administration’s Asia-Pacific strategic policy, which has remained elusive for the past half year since Trump’s inauguration. In fact, some regional countries were starting to wonder if there would ever be such a policy by the Trump administration, as they saw and felt that President Trump’s foreign-policy focus was clearly not on the Asia Pacific.
What Mattis eventually put across at the SLD was mostly what perhaps would be best described as a “forced” or “reluctant” version of US Asia-Pacific policy as designed by numerous previous administrations. His assurance of America’s “commitment” to the region – “We will be there for you” – is nothing new, as I have heard the same rather general assurance from at least three of his predecessors – Panetta, Hagel and Carter – at SLD. A so-called “rules-based” international order underwriting stability and security has also been advocated by at least Hagel and Carter, both of whom saw the escalation of the South China Sea disputes during their terms. And Mattis echoed at least Carter in declaring the three US defense priorities in Asia Pacific: strengthening alliances, empowering regional countries’ capabilities, and strengthening the US’ own capabilities in the region.
On US-China relations, Mattis reiterated that a conflict between the two superpowers was not inevitable, that there was much more to the relationship than just the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula, and that the US sought to cooperate with China whenever possible, but so said his recent predecessors too. And obligatorily, he had to spell out the US commitment to China’s much-vaunted One-China policy (albeit in the question-and-answer portion), after praising Taiwan’s democratic development.
Mattis defended the US deployment of the THAAD missile-defense system to South Korea as a response to real and not imaginary threats. Indeed, the gathering storm over the Korean Peninsula was supposed to be the most prominent issue in this year’s SLD, but even then it did not generate the same degree of fervent interest as did the South China Sea in previous years. This is perhaps because the parties concerned (minus the absent North Korea) are willing to give the new South Korean President some much needed time and space to balance their differing interests and concerns. And with a number of blatant terrorist acts fresh in the mind of SLD participants, Mattis’ call for unifying regional and global counter-terrorism efforts, especially the sharing of vital information, is not new but still timely.
What may be considered “new” in Mattis’ speech would be his assertion that although threats from North Korea pose a “clear and present danger,” the US’ goal is not “regime change” in North Korea, which may be interpreted as a positive gesture to the reclusive regime. And as if commiserating with the regional countries’ greatest concern, Mattis assured them that the US will not use relationships with allies as bargaining chips. In response to a question, Mattis also raised the need for a “mediation mechanism” for the South China Sea disputes, although he did not clearly spell out what shape such a mechanism would take.
A collective sigh of temporary relief could perhaps be felt across the region after Mattis’ various assurances at the SLD. But how long before that feeling of comfort will once again be taken away by sudden drastic developments remains to be seen.