June 10, 2012

The Shangri La dialogue

US dominance, China's absence
by P.R.Chari   

IT is a Tibetan word meaning "mountain pass," and is the name given by James Hilton in his novel "Lost Horizon" to an imagined paradise on earth. Shangri La is also the name given to a chain of luxury hotels (minimum off-season rates are $300 per night), which provides the venue for the annual conferences held by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) on global security issues. It is a Track-I event, and gives defence ministers around the world an opportunity to air their views on security problems excoriating the international system. Over the years the Shangri La dialogue process has acquired an iconic status, and it is important to be heard or, at least, seen here. The last 11th annual dialogue was held in the Shangri La hotel in Singapore between May 31 and June 3.

The 28 countries represented in this event included the majority of the Southeast Asian and East Asian nations, all the nuclear weapon states — minus Israel and North Korea plus a few European countries, mostly allies of the United States. The most critical item on the agenda was the first plenary meeting on the US rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific that was addressed by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. He sought to explain the decision of the United States to "re-posture" its naval forces from a roughly equal distribution between the Pacific and the Atlantic to a 60/40 split between the two oceans by 2020, emphasising the new importance of Asia. Other sessions were devoted to maritime security, the disputes in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia, cyber warfare, disaster management, role of submarines and South Asia's security threats.

Taking into account its pattern of representation, it was quite natural that the 11th Shangri La dialogue devoted quality attention to the maritime disputes in the South China and East China Seas. It was also to be expected that the rising contention between China and the United States, embedded in the latter's "pivot" towards Asia, would get fore-grounded. Incidentally, the new term of art is "rebalancing" instead of "pivot." In his address Leon Panetta, US Secretary of Defense, distanced himself from beliefs that the US "rebalancing" was directed at China; instead, he said, "increased US involvement in this region will benefit China as it advances our shared security and prosperity for the future."

In response to questions, he added, "the United States has been a power presence in the Pacific in the past and we will remain so and strengthen that in the future, and that's true for China as well. But if both of us work together, if both of us abide by international rules and international order, if both of us can work together to promote peace and prosperity and resolve disputes in this region, then both of us will benefit from that." But, he hastened to add, "We're not naive about the relationship and neither is China. We both understand the differences we have. We both understand the conflicts we have, but we also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our relationships."

He ended by expressing the hope that the Congressional mandate to cut an additional 20 per cent from the US defence budget in the next fiscal would not be pressed, and that Congress would come up with an alternative deficit reduction plan.
The eyebrow-raising incident, however, during this dialogue was that China's Defence Minister Liang chose to absent himself. Therefore, China was represented by a relatively low-level military official who carried little weight in this stellar assembly. The official explanation, provided by the convener of the conference, was that the Chinese Defence Minister was preoccupied with "domestic priorities". This excuse might sound plausible, in that senior Chinese officials might be hesitant to leave Beijing at the present juncture when a game of musical chairs is gathering speed after the political leadership's serious discomfiture in recent weeks like the Bo Xilai affair. But a better explanation was needed since Liang went to Cambodia a week earlier to attend the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting. China is not a member of this grouping, but Liang had sought this opportunity to come and explain China's position on the South China Sea. It would, therefore, seem that Liang was probably persuaded to absent himself from the Shangri La dialogue as he would have been called upon to answer tough questions on the South China Sea controversy by foreign journalists before an international audience. Inevitably, questions about China's internal politics could have been asked that could lead to more speculation on China's secretive governing processes.

India's Defence Minister A.K.Antony spoke of the country's interests in the session on maritime security. He clarified its position that "maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few. Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group. We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community in the maritime domain." He clarified India's position further, saying that "keeping in view the issues that have arisen with regard to the South China Sea, India has welcomed the efforts of the parties concerned in engaging in discussion… We hope that the issues will be resolved through dialogue and negotiation." Antony was thereby able to convey India's perceptions on the South China Sea vis-à-vis the contending nationalist and internationalist approaches of China and the United States.

Meanwhile, much greater recognition is needed that China remains far behind the US in terms of military strength and sophistication. China's GDP has, no doubt, become the second largest in the world, but it lags far behind in technological capacity and knowledge industries. China may have become more confident now in challenging the US, but its self-confidence is fairly circumscribed.

There is no other way to explain why Liang absented himself at the Shangri La conference in Singapore.

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