Last weekend, as Asia’s top national security leaders convened in a Singapore hotel to discuss how to manage the region’s delicate national security dynamics and avoid conflict, Chinese officials nodded along with the rest. Simultaneously, across the region, the People’s Liberation Army took a huge step to advance its military expansion. The contradiction perfectly illustrates how the United States is talking big in Asia while Beijing is moving quickly to change the facts on the ground. Josh Rogin specially for The Washington Post.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is the highest profile security-themed conference in Asia each year. The plenary sessions feature top defence officials and leaders from more than 20 Asian countries. The hallways are filled with generals, admirals, government officials, lawmakers, think tank experts – and even a few journalists.
While the conference was under way, a US defence official confirmed to me, the PLA tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile that drastically expands China’s worldwide nuclear deterrence capability. The message was clear: Beijing is not just talking – it’s acting to change the status quo.
Calling out bad behaviour
Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, a keynote speaker at the conference, delivered a nuanced speech that called out China for some of its bad behaviour but offered a constructive tone overall.
“I say now that China could still have a cooperative relationship with the US. It is in China’s interests to do so,” he said. “China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region too, but behaviour that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.”
Shanahan preached fair competition and promised enduring US commitment to a rules-based order in the region. The United States and China are not in a “face-off,” and the two big countries can work together to solve their issues, he said during a q and a. He also called out China for its military coercion, predatory economics and malign influence operations abroad. Democratic senators at the conference praised Shanahan for his even-handedness, which will surely help him in his bid for confirmation.
But several regional officials told me they had heard a similar message from US defence secretaries in the past. So why, I asked Shanahan, should the region believe the United States’ commitment this time around? His response: The Trump administration is finally resourcing an aggressive “Indo-Pacific strategy” and calling out Beijing’s bad behaviour.
Experts said Shanahan did a reasonably good job of projecting a balanced message. But he fumbled at times, such as during his q and a, when he said there is no US-China “trade war.” Also, there was nothing really new in his speech or the 64-page “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” he released to go along with it.
Chinese Defence Minister and State Councillor Gen. Wei Fenghe made no attempt at balance or nuance when he gave his own keynote speech at the conference. He launched a full-on assault on US policy and defended everything the Chinese government has ever done, including the Tiananmen Square massacre, the mass internment of Uighur Muslims and China’s militarisation of the South China Sea.
‘We will fight to the end’
Wei claimed China has never sent troops into another country (Vietnam?) never bullied other countries (Taiwan?) and called the United States the aggressor in the region.
“If the US wants to talk, we will keep the door open,” he said. “If they want a fight, we will fight till the end.”
Wei’s speech showed China feels strong and comfortable enough to openly say obviously false things and defend even its worst actions without shame or hesitation, said François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Wei does not give a fig for what anybody outside China thinks about what he says and what China does,” Heisbourg said. “That is our new normal.”
The most interesting speech of the conference was given by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He took a neutral stance, calling on both Beijing and Washington to avoid a conflict that would impact the region’s smaller nations. “When elephants fight, the grass is trampled; when elephants make love, the grass also suffers,” he quoted his father Lee Kuan Yew as saying.
Several US officials and experts told me they were dismayed by Lee’s “false equivalence” of US and Chinese actions in the region. Lee seemed to implicitly criticise the Trump administration’s more confrontational approach to China. That reinforced the sense that the region was more afraid of Chinese actions than reassured by US rhetoric.
“Countries have to accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen and it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening,” Lee said. “The US, being the preeminent power, has the most difficult adjustment to make.”
Region stays out of dispute
In past years, Southeast Asian countries stood with the United States in defence of the international order that China is threatening, but this year those countries just wanted to stay out of it, said Gordon Flake, chief executive of the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia. “In other years, we were talking about the region as a whole and this time we are just back to a pissing match between the two giants,” he said. “That’s understandable, but it’s unfortunate.”
Regional allies see a Trump administration that withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US president that didn’t attend major Asian diplomatic summits last year, and a State Department with no assistant secretary for East Asia. In Singapore, the administration hasn’t even nominated anyone to be the US ambassador.
In reality, there is still a gap between the US strategy in Asia and the resources needed to make it work. The Trump administration must do more to bring allies and partners along. Smaller countries are not yet sold on confronting Beijing, while Chinese government engagement and pressure is felt everywhere.
Asian countries must not be forced to choose between the United States and China. But it’s China that is pushing them to make that choice. The United States’ job is to help small nations preserve their freedom and sovereignty so they don’t see siding with Beijing as their only option. The Trump administration must step up its engagement in Asia – and not just when it’s time for a big conference.