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Asia’s Future in the Balance at Shangri-La

Asia’s Future in the Balance at Shangri-La

"We don’t think China wants to rule the world. China just wants to rule us." So said a senior Southeast Asian diplomat at last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Over the course of the three-day security conference, one Asian official after another chafed at the prospect of his country succumbing to a militarized Chinese sphere of influence. Who can prevent it and preserve the peace of Asia? The answer lies across the Pacific. As one Asian official put it starkly, "China only cares about the U.S."

A Chinese delegation of star-studded generals and admirals did little to reassure their neighbors of China’s peaceful rise. One felt a bit sorry for them: They were continuously challenged by representatives of nearly every Asian and Western nation over Chinese assertiveness and unwillingness to peacefully resolve disputes under international law.

But the Chinese felt no need to play defense. They found it more fruitful to go on the attack. According to the deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army general staff, the greatest danger to Asia-Pacific security comes not from China, the region’s revisionist power, but from the United States and Japan — the two nations that have done most to uphold the Asian status quo for seven decades.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a speech well received by allies anxious for reassurance. He invoked America’s formidable lead in military power and alliance partnerships in Asia. He outlined ongoing U.S. military exercises, naval ship visits, defense sales, and other activities that make America the guarantor of an open regional order that has produced more prosperity for more people than any other.

And he made this point: "We take no position on competing territorial claims. But we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those claims. We also oppose any effort by any nation to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation." These principles of peaceful dispute resolution and open global commons underpin the modern international system.

But from Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong’s perspective, the American message was "a provocation targeting China." It was "full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation." Indeed, rather than signaling the continuity of American strategy, Secretary Hagel was leading an effort to "usher destabilizing factors into the Asia-Pacific to stir up trouble."

Worse was what the leader of the Chinese delegation condemned as the "pre-coordinated" nature of the American and Japanese keynote addresses — between close allies, no less! — which only "encouraged each other in provoking and challenging China."

General Wang delivered some breaking news to the many Asian nations under military pressure from Beijing over territorial and maritime conflicts: "China has never initiated disputes over territorial sovereignty and the delimitation of maritime boundaries." No matter how many times he says this, it will still be untrue.

Moreover, "we know who is really assertive. Assertiveness has come from the joint actions of the United States and Japan, not China." But "proactive pacifism" is Japan’s strategic goal under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — whose armed forces legally cannot even defend American allies under direct attack, much less threaten China’s security.

Abe’s remarks at the conference focused on Tokyo’s commitment to "peace and prosperity in Asia, for evermore" – by promoting resolution of disputes, upholding freedom of the airspace and seas, strengthening regional institutions, and enhancing overseas development assistance. Chinese officials might improve their messaging by echoing these points instead of tearing them down.

Perhaps the Chinese delegation was unnerved by a more potent threat to China’s position. "The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged," Hagel declared. China has "a choice: to recommit to a stable regional order, or to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that have benefitted millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions around the world."

China’s regime is much more fragile than those of the United States and Japan. Its economic miracle is a product of peace and access to international markets and capital. China has the most to lose from conflict that could end these conditions and overturn the compact its ruling party has made with its people: rapid economic growth without political rights. In making a bid for hegemony in Asia that could lead to war, China could lose everything, reversing the most remarkable rise in world history.

Indeed, when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, standing alongside China’s senior representative to the conference, oddly warned against "color revolutions" in Asia – where more people live under free institutions than anywhere else — he only drew attention to the democracy deficit that afflicts both his own country and its giant neighbor, making them permanently insecure.

Perhaps this is why the Chinese delegation in Singapore felt so beleaguered. No matter how strong China gets, it will never enjoy full respect or international consent for its leadership as an autocracy. On this week’s 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, China’s rulers might consider the strategic case for political reform at home as a way of legitimizing China’s leadership abroad. This would surely be more effective than the finger-wagging at Shangri-La.