Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 begins in Singapore: With growing West-China divide, rising US-Iran tensions, focus on Asia defence summit

  • It has been a year since the divide between the liberal West and China has widened to a chasm and a new potential faultline has opened with rising US-Iran tensions, making the Shangri-La Dialogue the focus of world attention this year

Singapore: It is exactly one year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi put India at the forefront of a new India-Pacific policy to help contain China's aggression in East and Southeast Asian waters. And what an eventful year it has been.

It has been a year since the divide between the liberal West and China has widened to a chasm. Since April, a new potential faultline has opened with rising US-Iran tensions, making the annual Asian defence summit in Singapore, the Shangri-La Dialogue, the focus of world attention this year.

Delivering the keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last year, Modi announced a startling departure from India's equidistance between competitive big powers. He drew upon civilisational history to include Indian Ocean waters "from Africa to the Americas" within India's historical sphere of influence.

The rollout of the new India-Pacific policy was finely coordinated, with the US, Britain, France and even German defence officers committing to maintaining the current "rules-based world order" in the congested sea lanes of the region. When contacted, the Indian High Commission did not comment. High Commissioner Jawed Ashraf did not respond to questions on the one year of the India-Pacific policy.

The Chinese have been militarising islands claimed by neighbours and, armed with an ultra-modern navy and long-range missiles, are aggressively pushing for more strategic depth in what they consider their backyard. India's role in these sea lanes has gone back decades, especially in the Malacca Straits and beyond to Africa, where the Indian Navy has patrolled to clear pirates and ensure the security of trade routes. The US Navy has, since WWII, patrolled the Asia Pacific waters to maintain the sea trade framework put in place by the Allies.

 Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 begins in Singapore: With growing West-China divide, rising US-Iran tensions, focus on Asia defence summit

The keynote speech will be made by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday evening. AFP

It is not lost on the Chinese that Modi has come back to power stronger than ever since his path-breaking speech last year. Also, his more muscular defence policy, which was a dominant theme in the recent national elections, has won a ringing endorsement from the Indian voter.

This year, the three-day Dialogue, attended by the Indo-Pacific defence ministers, military officers and security professionals, kicks off on Friday (31 May).

Attending for the first time will be Chinese defence minister General Wei Fenghe. General James Mattis, a star speaker at last year's event, has been replaced by Patrick Shanahan, the acting US Defence Secretary. Unlike Mattis, he is not known to say "no" to President Donald Trump.

The keynote speech will be made by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday evening. Singapore, like the rest of China's neighbours from Australia to Myanmar, has been struggling to respond to growing Chinese soft and hard pressure, especially since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Lee's speech is being billed as a historic one in Singapore's bicentennial year. Exactly 200 years ago, a British colonial officer, Sir Stamford Raffles, transformed a small fishing village into a regional trading hub that has since gone on to become a unique, prosperous nation.

For Singapore, whose small size limits its options on either side of a big power tussle for dominance, the stakes are high. This small city-state primarily depends on trade. So peace and trust between the US and China is more than a matter of nuanced policy: It is life and death.

Lee's keynote speech, during which he will call for better US-China relations, assumes added importance because he will be handing over power to a new generation of leadership after elections either late this year or the next. This new Prime Minister will be the first in Singapore to not have been chosen by the legendary Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. The Singapore patriarch died in 2015.

While Singapore has had astounding success by hewing to studied Swiss-like neutrality between superpowers, it owed a lot to the late Lee's towering personality and the respect he commanded across the world.

In the years since his death, his successor once-removed and son, Lee Hsien Loong, has had more mixed success. Relations with China hit a low point in 2016 when Singaporean armoured vehicles, being transported back after a military exercise in Taiwan, were detained at a Hong Kong port. The following year (2017), Lee was not invited to the inaugural conference of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi's signature infrastructure project that serves China's geostrategic aims.

The Chinese were upset that Singapore was playing a leading role in trying to get President Barack Obama to ink a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact, which was conceptualised to be the world's largest free trade pact that would exclude China. In the end, though, Obama failed to get it done. This was a setback for Singapore. However, Lee was invited to the second Belt and Road Initiative conference in Beijing this year, and Singapore plays a key role in the financing of BRI projects.

But it was not just the failure to get TPP done. Under President Obama, Singapore and all other countries in the region suffered one more near-catastrophe: the steady decline of US military power, just when China was moving in. Obama's reassuring "Asia pivot" turned out to be a specious phrase meant more for a mention in legacy documents. The US military, suffering from huge budget cuts, had fewer ships and fewer "freedom of navigation" passages through contested waters. The low point for the US Navy came in 2017, when USS McCain lost 10 sailors in a collision with an oil tanker in Singapore waters. Equipment had malfunctioned through lack of maintenance.

Obama pulled back from the region, leaving small nations in the Asia Pacific to fend for themselves. Nations like Japan, despite a military pact with the US, have since 2014 reacted to the Chinese threat by exploring ways to strengthen their defences. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese government has made amending its pacifist Constitution a top priority to enable it to counter Chinese aggression in the East China Sea.

Larger nations like the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to amend trade deals with China to better protect their sovereignty. Sri Lanka and the Maldives, under new governments, have reversed their pro-China policies. Australia and Singapore have passed laws aimed at discouraging Chinese soft power from altering domestic infrastructure and public networks.

President Donald Trump, however, has brought an entirely new set of problems. The trade war with China has a direct effect on sentiment, though there is a possibility that some small nations may gain at China's expense when things settle down. It all depends on where the chips fall.

In the meantime, there is a growing military tension. The US is pushing hard on every front. Huawei has been banned from supplying its products to federal agencies in the US. Similar voices in the United Kingdom and Germany to keep the Chinese company out of the new 5G network have become strident.

The ongoing Iran crisis complicates an already tense situation. If tensions continue into next year, world growth, already forecast to decline by the year-end by the WTO, could stall. Alongside, military tensions could easily splinter the world into two competing camps, with China, Russia, Iran, perhaps Turkey, on one side and the west on the other. A situation not unlike that in early-20th Europe — then the seat of world power — before the Great War.

At Shangri-La Dialogue 2019, China will offer its deliberative response to the pushback by democratic nations against its unsavoury methods. Xi's defence minister, who himself arrived in Singapore on Wednesday, will be at the conference to listen to the cacophony of complaints. He will also answer questions from the audience. A lot will be riding on him: China may have overplayed its hand under Xi but the Chinese cannot afford to "lose face" by conceding this.

At home, there is some disquiet caused by the ongoing trade war and Xi's overbearing, personality-led style of leadership. As the first post-Deng Xiaoping leader not anointed by the patriarch, there is considerably more pressure on him. Besides, the depth of his commitment to his ideology is truly astonishing. Xi has not only inscribed his "Thought' into the Party Constitution but has also claimed a Mao-like status by declaring the start of a "new era" under his leadership. In a carefully formulated speech to the party Congress in 2017, Xi declared that China's first stage of development, started by Mao, was now complete. And that China, now in an "intermediate" stage, should teach its methods to the world. And play a bigger role in world affairs.

Since he took over, the world has seen the kind of role Xi had in mind. A much more active military seeking to control strategic locations, large infrastructure loans to poor countries through deals with sometimes corrupt leaders and eventual takeover of assets and networks. And using state-owned companies and Chinese citizens abroad to spy on free market economies.

The Chinese never start a war without overwhelming odds in their favour — except to defend their core Communist ideology. But it is unknown to what extent Xi's hands may be forced by the powerful PLA generals eager to play with their shiny new toys. And whether the boiling tensions spill over into military conflict or not, subversion is a long game the Chinese have always played. To fight without fighting is the Chinese way.

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Updated Date: May 31, 2019 11:11:34 IST