Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore sees US and China on collision course: Battle of values set to play out in Indo-Pacific

Singapore: Tiny but ebullient, this country where the East mingles effortlessly with the West is a natural theatre for a Great Power Game unfolding in the Indian Ocean Region — the most important piece of geopolitical real estate in the world today. Primarily, this is a war of ideas that have had currency for decades; but the impact of the outcome on real world events and the balance of power will reverberate for many more decades to come. And in the immediate foreground is the explicit threat of war in one of the most militarised stretches of ocean anywhere in the world.

At the three-day Shangri La Dialogue (held from 31 May to 2 June), the two main protagonists in this battle — the US and China — set out competing visions of the Indo-Pacific. Notably, it was the first time they did so from the same stage. Speaking first, Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan was blunt in his warning to China: "No one nation can — or should — dominate the Indo-Pacific," he said, detailing at length Chinese tactics to intimidate smaller nations diplomatically and militarily, by reclaiming and building military bases in disputed waters across the South China Sea. The Chinese say these bases are to defend China against "outside powers" like the US, France and Britain, who conduct freedom of navigation operations to keep the waters claimed by China open to all.

"The Indo-Pacific," Shanahan continued, "is our priority theatre". In this heavily militarised theatre, the US has 370,000 soldiers deployed, four times as many as any other region in the world. It also has 2,000 aircraft, 200 submarines and ships. In addition, aircraft carrier groups call at port regularly.

 Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore sees US and China on collision course: Battle of values set to play out in Indo-Pacific

File image of US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. AP

Speaking after Shanahan, both British and French defence ministers expressed strong commitment to the US-led Indo-Pacific policy explicitly aimed at containing China. Britain's Penny Mordaunt revealed that British forces had an "unbroken presence" in the region for the whole year. French defence minister Florence Parly warned of a global confrontation in the region. The current "evolving" security order, she said, contained the "building blocks" of global confrontation. And France was "not going anywhere".

As she spoke, a French aircraft carrier group led by the Charles De Gaulle was anchored nearby. Accompanied by frigates and submarines, the De Gaulle had just completed "advanced" training exercises with the Indian Navy, she said. The carrier group will go on to hold exercises with Japanese and Australian forces. Parly said France had five military commands and three bases in the region.

Responding from the same stage the very next day, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe dismissed the tough talk by the US and its allies. "Talks, we welcome. To fight, we are ready. Till the end," he said, "The PLA is not afraid of sacrifice." The Chinese defence minister clearly specified two areas where the PLA would not "yield an inch": Taiwan and the South China Sea. Wei, whose presence here itself is noteworthy, was remarkably self-assured as he deftly handled questions from the audience, at one point sneering at western values as evidenced by the historical enslavement of black Africans and persecution of the Jews. "Hegemony over others, those are not Chinese values," he said.

The Chinese have, over the years, kept a light presence at this annual security summit attended by defence professionals from the West and across the region. Since the dialogue began in 2002, only once has a Chinese defence minister been in attendance. This time, Wei's presence and his calibrated but unrestrained utterances were clearly meant to provide an unequivocal response to the US and its allies amid the rising tensions over the new Indo-Pacific policy.

First voiced by US president Donald Trump a year earlier, the new Indo-Pacific policy had its most comprehensive rollout last year, when India took a central role in it with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's sweeping keynote speech. This time, perhaps by design but caused primarily by the recent national vote, there was virtually no Indian presence. A senior defence official said that the just re-elected prime minister was contemplating changes in the top leadership of the armed forces. Only two relatively junior officers attended. Sources said National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had expressed his inability to attend well in advance but organisers were keen to have him and tried to get him to attend till the last minute. As a result, he was billed to speak at a session. He did not attend.

The Chinese defence minister, who was asked how China would react to India's simultaneous rise in the neighborhood, did not give a direct answer. Wei responded by saying only that there was "some growth" in the relationship since the Xi Jinping-Modi Wuhan summit last year. "The momentum is getting better," he said, noting that the disputed border was stable.

The confrontation between China and the democratic West has long been billed as a "clash" of "civilisations" — and the divergent values that underpin these societies.

In fact, the speeches of western military leaders at the conference were liberally sprinkled with the word "values", a word that was ubiquitous during deliberations.

The Americans, perhaps with some justification, claimed a universal status for liberal western values. "These are not American principles; they are broadly accepted across this region and the world," Shanahan said. He also pointedly reminded the Chinese that their prosperity itself was owed to the trade and security framework put in place by the Allies after the Second World War and enforced by the US Navy in these waters.

Singapore, a remarkable success story, itself owes much to this "rules-based order". But more: Its relevance to this unfolding saga is replete with symbolism. It was here, on a visit in 1978, that then senior vice-premier, Deng Xiaoping, impressed by this tiny nation's success, found the model he replicated at home on a gigantic scale.

It is here also that Deng borrowed from founder Lee Kuan Yew's limited "democracy with Asian characteristics" model. Back home, he coined the phrase "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and used it to bridge the ideological gap between Communism and China's dalliance with market economics.

Paradoxically, Xi, who has declared the beginning of a "new era" in Chinese history, is nothing like the leader envisaged by Chinese tradition or communist thought. Xi is flamboyant in a culture that frowns on displays of personality or showmanship. The contrast was on display months before he took full charge of the State apparatus, during his first "rollout" in front of the world. Unlike any other Chinese leader, Xi strode across the stage, mike in hand, basking in the adulation of party cadre rather like a rock star. Supremely confident, even brash, he seemed completely at ease in front of the world media, a change from the forbidding mien cultivated by past Chinese presidents.

This brashness has since been evident in the suddenness and irrevocability of the change he has wrought. In a short time, Xi has changed the entire structure put in place by Mao Zedong, and added brick-upon-brick by successive leaders. Xi has abolished term limits, enshrined his 'thought' into the Constitution and taken China's engagement with the world in a dramatic new direction. His scope and ambition is breathtaking, and his decisions seem to be marked by flamboyance. Although the modernisation of the Chinese military began over two decades ago under Deng's successor, President Jiang Zemin, it took on a whole new life under Xi. The hugely, perhaps overly, ambitious Belt-Road Initiative is also Xi's baby as are the Confucius Institutes being used in a big soft power push to influence neighbours. And the aggressive, sometimes predatory, loans to participating States.

In the current tussle with the West, Xi faces two important shortcomings. First, he is the first Chinese president not to have been picked by Deng. Second, Singapore's Lee, China's best interpreter to the West, is no more.

For all of the 19th Century, there was a politico-diplomatic tussle between Britain and Russia for colonies. Britain was fearful of Tsarist Russia's designs on its "jewel" India. And Russia blocked Britain's reach into Central Asia. It was called the First Great Game. In the Second Great Game, oil companies vied for untapped oil wealth in the Baltic States after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 21st Century, a Third Great Game is being played over values — Chinese and Western. India, the other big Asian power, which is philosophically and politically allied with the West, entered this Great Game last year, when Modi cited history to claim an Indian Ocean legacy stretching "from Africa to the Americas".

Singapore, which has a Chinese majority that sees itself as uniquely Chinese, and is multicultural, best illustrates the challenges Xi faces as he tries to sell his version of a benevolent, peaceful China trying to "rise peacefully" in a deeply suspicious world.

While Singapore has stuck to a Swiss-like neutrality in dealing with the two Big Powers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear where his heart lay in his keynote speech to open the dialogue.

"The United States is welcome and has many friends in Asia," declared Lee, "It’s not that they (the US) buy them, but there is a certain breadth of spirit, generosity, policy."

That breadth — and a healthy respect for harmony — can be found in decorous and formal Chinese culture, too. But will China’s neighbours ever taste it?

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Updated Date: Jun 03, 2019 15:04:45 IST