In his address to the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter outlined the US concept of a principled security network in the Asia-Pacific. This network is emergent from existing “bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral” alliances in the region, and allows all interested parties, regardless of their “capability, budget, or experience,” to share in the security burden.
The US sees itself as positioned at the heart of this multi-layered Asia-Pacific security network. Secretary Carter highlighted the US’ bilateral alliances with Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, India, and Vietnam; trilateral arrangements with Japan and South Korea, Japan and Australia, Japan and India, and Thailand and Laos; and finally the multilateral ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus. Secretary Carter also highlighted alliances formed between the US’ “like-minded partners” in the region who share the US’ “vision of a principled regional order,” including bilateral arrangements between Japan and Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines, and India and Vietnam; and trilateral arrangements between Japan, Australia, and India, and between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In the US’ view, while China has been included in US-led regional activities like the upcoming Rim of the Pacific naval exercise, the US sees China’s activities, especially in the South China Sea, as leading it towards raising a “Great Wall of self-isolation” from the other countries of the Asia-Pacific.1
In his response to Secretary Carter’s address, Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of the Chinese Central Military Commission’s office of International Military Cooperation, noted that China has in fact “shown restraint” in response to provocations in the South China Sea, in particular from the US navy’s freedom of navigation operations.2 Rear Admiral Guan also expressed his belief that Secretary Carter’s statements on China’s movement towards a “Great Wall of self-isolation” were instead “meant to convince other countries in the region to isolate China.”3 Responding to Secretary Carter’s suggestion that China recognize the upcoming ruling by the UN Arbitration Tribunal on the South China Sea case filed by the Philippines as an “opportunity … to recommit to a principled future,” Rear Admiral Guan reiterated the Chinese government’s position that China will not accept the ruling due to the “illegal and unjust” nature of the arbitration.4
In his address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo reiterated China’s “desire for a peaceful solution” to the South China Sea dispute, but also stated that China has “no fear of trouble” instigated by the other players in the dispute, in particular the US. Admiral Sun also rejected Secretary Carter’s characterization of China’s activities as leading it towards a “Great Wall of self-isolation,” and argued that China has not and will not be isolated. He also noted that China’s critics are unfairly assessing China’s actions through the outdated “Cold War mentality and prejudice.”5 Indeed, the support shown for China’s position on the South China Sea from non-US-led multilateral organizations like the Arab League and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization support Admiral Sun’s denial of the US claim of China’s isolation.6 Admiral Sun also appeared to identify the US as being behind the bold resistance of smaller nations like the Philippines to China’s South China Sea claims when he stated that “some hegemonic countries have empowered small countries to make provocations against big countries.”7
An editorial in China’s Global Times newspaper responded to Secretary Carter’s speech by arguing that “the US is becoming the biggest instigator of chaos in the South China Sea” and that “it is the US’ policy to hinder China’s rise by inciting other claimants of the South China Sea and ASEAN to inflame the dispute.” According to this viewpoint, this escalation of tensions in the South China Sea is designed to “sustain Washington’s hegemony in the Western Pacific by reinforcing military deployments and containing China’s peaceful rise.”8 Secretary Carter raised the big stick of US hegemony when he warned China of unspecified “actions” from the US and its allies should China attempt to reclaim land on the contested Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island).9 US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was not at the Shangri-La Dialogue but on a state visit to Mongolia, likewise warned China against declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea as it did three years earlier over the East China Sea. China however has asserted its right to raise ADIZs over its claimed maritime zones.10
Singapore’s Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen offered a more nuanced view of the security dilemma facing the Asia-Pacific by noting that the rise of China has challenged the regional security architecture that has been led by the US over the past seven decades: “There is no question of containment. The question is, how do you accommodate the security architecture of both a resident power and a rising power?”11
Speaking in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the World Economic Forum for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an event held just before the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo noted China’s strong determination to hold on to its claims in the South China Sea: “China’s claims are not weak … It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the legality of China’s claims and therefore underestimate their will.” Mr. Yeo explained that not only do China’s maritime claims “date back to the Qing dynasty,” other countries— including the current claimants—did not object when the Chinese government first announced its nine-dash line map marking its maritime claims in the South China Sea.12 As if to underline the resolve that Mr. Yeo spoke of, on the day of the opening of the Shangri-La Forum, the Chinese Foreign Ministry lambasted the Philippines for defining Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island) as a reef rather than an island in its UN arbitration case against China, and argued that this showed that the arbitration case was intended to “negate China’s sovereignty and related rights over the Spratly Islands,” an action which China sees as a “violation of international law.”13 This in turn signals that China will most likely not offer concessions on its maritime claims in the South China Sea despite indications from the incoming Duterte administration in the Philippines of a possible Sino-Philippine rapprochement.14
Prior to the Shangri-La Dialogue, China had sharply criticized US ally Japan for its “hyping up of the South China Sea issue and exaggeration of tensions” at the May 2016 Group of Seven summit at Ise-Shima, Japan. At this summit, the G7 countries had declared their concerns over the maritime tensions in the East and South China Seas, and reaffirmed the “fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes.”15 China responded that these maritime tensions were not the concern of the G7, which is not a security forum but is instead a “platform for managing the economies of developed nations.”16 At the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Japanese Minister of Defence Gen Nakatani stated that Japan is providing military assistance—including upgrades for surveillance and military technology, as well as joint military training—to Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines to help them meet the challenges posed by China’s land reclamation and infrastructural construction activities in the South China Sea. As with Secretary Carter, Minister Nakatani, along with the defence ministers of other Asian and Western countries including Vietnam, the UK, and France, also called on China to respect the upcoming ruling of the UN arbitration tribunal.17
Even though it does not have claims to the South China Sea, the Pacific island nation of New Zealand also raised its concerns about the South China Sea dispute during the Shangri-La Dialogue. New Zealand’s Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee noted that China has now reclaimed over 3,000 acres of land in its claimed islands in the South China Sea, and hence trading nations like New Zealand have legitimate concerns that China has plans to “turn more reefs into islands that could be capable of supporting communities, and then claim territorial or even exclusive economic zones around them.”18 China however sees the involvement of non-claimant countries, especially the US, as potentially destabilizing factors in the South China Sea dispute. A commentary published by China’s Xinhua news agency just before the opening of the Shangri-La Dialogue argues that such destabilization is intended to help the US maintain its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.19
However, so long as tensions remain over the South China Sea, non-claimant countries will continue to be interested in the dispute, especially in case of an escalation of tensions. In his address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar called for the establishment of a regional security framework for peaceful conflict resolution. Minister Parrikar highlighted India’s interest in developing its blue economy through the expansion of its maritime trading network, and he noted the importance of “freedom of navigation and over flights in accordance with international law,” including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.20 He also pointed out that a rule-based order in the South China Sea would yield “sustainable prosperity,” the achievement of which would be in the economic interests of China and the other claimants.21 Indeed, defence experts recently estimated that fears of conflict in the South China Sea will “drive up Asia-Pacific defence spending by nearly 25 per cent from 2015 to US$533 billion in 2020.”22 While this is good news for the defence industry, such increased expenditures in the defence sector represent significant opportunity costs for the affected economies.
Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim is a research fellow with International Public Policy Pte. Ltd. (IPP), and is the author of Cambodia and the Politics of Aesthetics (Routledge 2013). He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and has taught at Pannasastra University of Cambodia and the American University of Nigeria. Prior to joining IPP, he was a research fellow with the Longus Institute for Development and Strategy.