Hard Place and Happy Talk

The Shangri-La Dialogue celebrated its 10th anniversary by trying to talk about China without mentioning it directly by name.

The outgoing Pentagon chief, Bob Gates, set the tone. He avoided the tough posers regarding Beijing’s ambitions and actions that he and other US defence secretaries had asked. He made it part of the subtext: noting the “widespread desire across the region for stronger military-to-military relationships with the United States” and how it was stronger than it was “20 years ago”. He also spoke of the new Air-Sea Battle strategy being developed by the US to handle “access and area denial scenarios.”

There was much speculation in the tea room afterwards as to why Gates had left unsaid why there was so much enthusiasm for US ties and whom Air-Sea Battle was designed to counter: China.

1. America, Truly Asian

Gates was clear on one thing: Asia needn’t worry, the US was going to remain a Pacific power. “I will bet $100 that five years from now US influence in this region will be as strong if not stronger than it is today,” he said after his speech.

His successor will have to say it again, however. Five years is short and $100 isn’t much by the standards of the world’s largest casino land, Macau. And in five years, who knows where the US will be economically and China militarily? Which is why everyone hedges – don’t get China too angry but try to keep the US in Asia.

That others at the conference avoided mentioning the shadow of the Middle Kingdom was only partly due to a fear of China. After two years of boat-smashing and diplomatic arm twisting, the Asian countries had agreed at an Asian defence ministers’ powwow last year to try and resolve these problems peaceably. As the mechanism existed it had to be given time. As Gates noted, without any enthusiasm, “Let’s see if it works.”

2. Ships in the Night

The defence ministers of Vietnam and the Philippines were less patient. Their countries, after all, had been facing Chinese bullying just last month. The Vietnamese minister mentioned shipping “incidents”. His Filipino counterpart of ship “bumps”. But even they spoke in circles of the Rising Superpower Who Cannot Be Named.

While other country reps were arguing privately that Beijing had yet to provide an explanation of why it went off the rails the past two years, these two said the kingdom was still not back on. Said Australian China-watcher John Lee, “They’re just being more selective these days.”

3. China Smiles

The speech everyone was waiting for was from the Chinese defence minister, General Liang Guanglie. And he continued in the charm offensive mode that has been characteristic of Beijing the past several months.

General Liang said all the right things – he spoke of peaceful solutions to all problems, the use of dispute solving mechanisms, decried zero-sum mentalities and how everyone should enjoy respect and equality.

But even Liang couldn’t keep his country’s sinews from showing. He warned countries to “not engage in making alliances that targeted third countries” – saying this twice. China, he said, would maintain a defensive policy but seemed to place its diaspora behind the shield as well. Measure a country’s “threatingness” (so said the interpreter) not by the size of its GDP but by its policies, he urged. But he then spoke of the need for Chinese military modernization and expansion commensurate with the size of its economy. And so on.

Somewhat worryingly, after insisting that China would only get harassed if someone intruded on its “core interests,” the general went on to define this as including “anything related to our national development.” As one Western delegate said afterwards, “That pretty much covers everything, doesn’t it?” It could, at a stretch, include the Bellary iron ore mines, I thought.

4. Praise for India

India normally doesn’t shine at Shangri-La, but its budding relationship with the United States received mention – from the Americans. Gates spoke of the Indo-US relationship as one of the surprise accomplishments of his term in office. It was still troubled, he said, by Cold Warriors and their retirement would be helpful. A senior US politician, in a later session on Afghanistan, pointedly called India a strategic partner in response to some Pakistani barbs.

Minister of state for defence Pallam Raju skirted one question: what was India going to do about Somalia given that the maritime patrols off its coast were a “spectacular failure”? He didn’t dispute that assessment, correctly noted that Somalian piracy had to be tackled on the land, but then spoke waffingly of how, maybe, more aid could be given to the civil war-wracked country. The tearoom wasn’t impressed. More aid? And who in Somali would be able to use it? The pirates? Al Qaeda?

5. Ten Years

The Shangri-La Dialogue, or the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia Security Summit, as it is formally called, has proven to be one of the most remarkably successful non-governmental defence powwows ever.

It began in 2002 with about 160 delegates and now boasts more than double that. More importantly, the defence ministers of the entire continent showed up, more or less, along with all sorts of other notables.

I suspect the dialogue’s success partly lies in the Asian diplomatic culture of speaking in flowery language in all official gatherings, even if everything is going to hell outside. Putting up a more informal get together with plenty of time and space for everyone to meet on the sidelines – and be more frank – was exactly what Asian security interchange needed. Shangri-La was there first. And thanks to Asia’s boom, the dialogue became easily the preeminent security platform for the preeminent continent of the world.

And, of course, there’s shopping in Orchard Street just a stone’s throw from the conference, though the Singapore dollar’s rise is making it less of a bargain these days. Asia rising and all that.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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