China’s ham-fisted attempt at international comity at the Shangri-La Dialogue is a worrisome harbinger of regional aggression.
- By Dhruva JaishankarDhruva Jaishankar is a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
SINGAPORE — By the standards of Asian security summits — generally carefully choreographed and stilted affairs filled with coded messages and platitudes about cooperation — the May 30-June 1 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was extraordinary. There had been much speculation as to how China would respond to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s keynote address at this annual event organized by the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies, and how Beijing would represent itself in the aftermath of its November extension of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over disputed islands in the East China Sea and recent run-ins with the Philippines and Vietnam over contested territory in the South China Sea.
Much to the surprise of many in attendance, China opted to field a large delegation that included 12 officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — twice as much brass as the official U.S. delegation. And the officers, along with Chinese civilian officials and scholars, were omnipresent, speaking up and challenging speakers at every session in a bid to present Chinese viewpoints on everything from disputed territory and cyber espionage to defense spending and international law.
This may have been intended as a charm offensive, but it proved not very charming and somewhat offensive. PLA Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu engaged in a lengthy diatribe against U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which she insinuated that upholding U.S. treaty commitments was "a sort of threat of force, coercion, or intimidation." She even spoke over the session’s moderator, which didn’t win her many points with neutrals. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian went so far as to characterize a question by Chinese scholar Wang Yiwei as "insolent."
Yet there appeared to be plenty of offense to go around. The Chinese delegation expressed umbrage over speeches by Abe and Hagel. Going dramatically off-script, PLA Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong called the two addresses "staged provocations," adding, "I feel that the speeches of Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel have been pre-coordinated…. They supported and encouraged each other in provoking and challenging China."
Abe’s speech barely mentioned China by name — but, in Wang’s view, violated "the spirit of the [Shangri-La] Dialogue." Apparently, Abe’s announcement that Japan would assume a "proactive contribution to peace" and uphold the rule of law came across as far too menacing. Meanwhile, Wang called Hagel’s presentation, which was broadly in line with previously-stated U.S. policy, "a speech with tastes of hegemony, a speech with expressions of coercion and intimidation, a speech with flaring rhetoric that usher destabilizing factors into the Asia-Pacific to stir up trouble, and a speech with unconstructive attitude." Needless to say, Wang’s urgings immediately following these comments to promote strategic trust in the region came off as somewhat insincere.
There were two broad themes in the Chinese delegation’s talking points throughout the summit. The first was that China was simply taking "countermeasures" in response to others’ provocations, and was entirely blameless for any of the tensions that happened to be escalating in the region. According to Yao, there was nothing wrong with China’s extension of its ADIZ into the East China Sea. "What international law has China violated?" she asked Hagel. Meanwhile, Wang described the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a "weapon" against China — never mind that the United States still faces criticism in Asia for not having ratified it. Absolutely nothing, it seems, was — or could be — Beijing’s fault.
A second line of argument employed by Chinese officials was simple denial. Speaking at the beginning of the summit, former Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, a seasoned diplomat and charmer, accused the Philippines of provocative actions in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, while denying that there was any U.S.-mediated agreement (as was widely reported) between Beijing and Manila to mutually stand down. Yao, similarly, spoke loftily about China’s concerns about nuclear proliferation in its neighborhood but, when asked specifically about it, conveniently sidestepped Beijing’s less-than-helpful role in stemming the spread of nuclear technology and material.
Abe and Hagel’s speeches were forward-leaning attempts at showing their countries’ security commitments to their region, but they were far from militaristic. China may have had reason to be somewhat concerned about the content of their remarks, and in certain instances Beijing’s viewpoints were reasonable. But by falling back so easily and instinctively on outrage, dismissing any criticism of China’s behavior as groundless or illegitimate, and portraying its unilateral actions as responses to provocations, Beijing did not win any friends in Singapore. Neither denial nor victimhood placated the countries along China’s periphery that were hoping very much for a quantum of reassurance.
If China has serious leadership aspirations in Asia it will have to convince, and not just compel, its neighbors. On the one hand, by engaging in forums such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, Beijing clearly desires to play a role in and actively shape the region’s security architecture. And yet the nature of its participation in official or semi-official discussions is often counterproductive, presenting a truly worrying aspect of China’s rise. As Australian attendee and editor Sam Roggeveen noted, China’s behavior at the event showed "that Beijing, the region’s superpower, may not be looking for friends or allies, just supplicants." Indeed, for China to be a true leader in Asia, it would have to do a much better job acquiring followers.