As always, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the premier Asian regional security forum, the most important news had to be read in the subtexts, beneath the usual cant and pleasantries. This past weekend, there were no public confrontations between potential adversaries, as happened in 2010, when then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly argued over North Korea policy with Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu, director-general of the National Defense University in Beijing. The next day, General Ma Xiaotian, during his own speech to the forum, launched a tirade at the United States, blaming the Pentagon for escalating U.S.-China animosity and a breakdown in military-military cooperation.
At the 2013 Shangri-La Dialogue, all the public speeches seemed to come from the same speechwriter. On the first day, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told attendees that all countries in Asia must work harder to build trust amongst themselves. “To build strategic trust, we need to abide ourselves by international law, uphold the responsibilities of nations, especially of major powers, and improve the efficiency of multilateral security cooperation mechanisms,” Dung said.
In a question and answer session after his speech at the forum, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directly addressed a concern, raised by Chinese attendees, that the American re-balancing to Asia was designed to contain China. The United States welcomes “a strong and emerging and responsible China,” Hagel said, according to a Pentagon transcript. “We look forward to that emergence for many reasons, but one among them all is as important as any other, and that’s the responsibility that great nations take on.”
Hagel and senior Chinese military leaders attending the forum also took the time to build personal ties. They had several informal chats, and U.S. and Chinese attendees reminisced about their long careers in the military and swapped stories about their grandchildren. American officials told the Wall Street Journal that they had seen a “marked change, at least in tone, in the new Chinese leadership’s approach to the U.S,” presumably reflected by these warm exchanges in Singapore.
Yet the subtext of the forum was more important than the niceties, even if those niceties made for good copy: East Asia today is engaged in a massive arms race, and that build-up and hardening alliances were barely concealed at the forum. (According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, military spending rose by slightly over three percent year-on-year in Asia in 2012, one of the only regions of the world where it did go up.)
While advocating closer cooperation and trust-building in East Asia, Nguyen reminded forum participants that Hanoi, despite its weak economy and political in-fighting, plans to hedge against a lack of resolution of regional tensions. “No regional country would oppose the strategic engagement of extra-regional powers if such engagement aims to enhance cooperation for peace, stability and development,” Mr. Nguyen said. By “no regional country,” you can read “Vietnam.” And for the “engagement of extra-regional powers?” Nguyen means the United States, which over the past decade has built closer strategic ties with Vietnam than any other nation in Southeast Asia save Singapore —and including treaty allies like the Philippines.
Meanwhile, though the question and answer with Hagel was played up prominently by the Pentagon, he delivered perhaps the sternest and most public warning ever from a top U.S. leader to China about hacking of U.S. government and corporate assets by people allegedly linked to the Chinese government. Shortly before appearing in Singapore, Hagel also told reporters traveling with him that though it could sometimes be hard to prove where the hacking attacks came from, “We [the U.S. government] can tell … And I think we’ve got to be honest about that. We’ve got to let people know about that.”
Other leaders used the forum to reinforce their security concerns, too. China announced, again, that it would not go to international arbitration to resolve its disputes over waters in the East China Sea and South China Sea. “We don’t see any necessity to resort to an international tribunal,” Qi Jianguo, the PLA deputy chief of staff, told the Shangri-La Dialogue. He left open the vague idea that China and other claimants over disputed waters would handle their disputes through “open-minded channels,” whatever that means.
Meanwhile, Philippine officials made sure that they got another public pledge, this time from Hagel, of the U.S.-Philippine treaty alliance, a major deterrent to an escalation of China-Philippines tensions in the South China Sea. And although Singapore, host of the forum, is officially a neutral player in disputes over the South China Sea, and not a formal U.S. treaty ally, Singaporean leaders also made sure that a U.S. Navy littoral ship, the USS Freedom, part of the re-balancing to Asia, was docked in Singapore during the Dialogue, and that Hagel made a visit, to the Freedom. This stands in sharp contrast to Singapore’s approach to military-military cooperation with the United States only a decade ago: At that time, the United States and Singapore did have relatively close mil-mil ties, but Singapore went to great lengths to downplay them publicly.
All in all, though the Shangri-La Dialogue serves a useful purpose of getting Asia-Pacific leaders to talk to each other and establish the kind of personal links that could be necessary in averting crises, the region’s arms buildup and tensions continue to rise. Though some observers are hopeful that the current head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei (the chairmanship rotates each year), will be effective in moving ASEAN and China toward real negotiations over the South China Sea, this is doubtful. It is true that Brunei is a contestant in the South China Sea, and that it has some experienced diplomats, and is also small enough to be viewed as an impartial mediator. But as the subtext of the Shangri-La Dialogue showed, no one in East Asia seems to be in any mood for real concessions —on anything.