by Darshana M. Baruah. She is a Junior Fellow at the New Delhi based think tank, Observer Research Foundation, is working on the South China Sea and has completed her Masters in International Relations from Cardiff University in 2012.
The Shangri-La dialogue is a crucial platform to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The forum is attended by high level officials from both resident and non-resident countries reflecting on the year gone by and paving a way forward for the coming year. This year particularly focused on regional security tension over the South China Sea dispute. The dialogue was preceded by some significant developments in the region with a volley of warnings and protests between the US and China.US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was on an 11 day trip to the Asia-Pacific in order to strengthen Washington’s ties with the region. This re-focus on the pivot comes at a time of unchecked unilateral actions by China in the South China Sea. Over the last two years Beijing has been consistent in asserting its claims in the South China Sea even if it meant undertaking aggressive actions. With nothing to back up its diplomatic commitments to the region, Washington’s dominance in the region was beginning to quiver. It is perhaps this reason that Beijing may have been surprised when US decided to fly a surveillance aircraft near the disputed islands where China is creating artificial islands. It was a strong move after a period of comparative political lull on Washington’s part.
The US on May 20 flew the P8-A Poseidon, a surveillance aircraft over the Spratly Islands near Subi reef before moving on to Fiery Cross reef. The CNN crew onboard recorded the aircraft’s exchange with the PLA Navy demanding that the US aircraft leave the area immediately. The released reports and footage of the mission drew sharp criticism from the Chinese government and Washington vowed to continue to fly over international waters in the South China Sea.
The move to challenge China’s construction of artificial islands in disputed waters came about a week before the Shangri-La Dialogue 2015, held from 29-31 May 2015. The Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies is a platform to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific. Every country with a stake in the region sends a high level delegation to voice their concern and raise issues pertaining to the region. The Dialogue sets the tone for the coming year based on the developments in the past year. In 2014, the region witnessed increasing tension among the South China Sea claimants in an attempt to consolidate their respective claims.
The region also sensed a weakening American dominance with Beijing taking centre stage in most security and economic affairs. As analysts began to question the US pivot to the region, Washington felt the need to re-examine its policy and assure its friends and allies that the Asia Pacific still remains one of the top priorities in US defence policies. Carter’s visit was defined as an attempt to “modernize US alliances” in the region. Reiterating Washington’s stand on the South China Sea, Carter stated that “[t]here should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world”. In turn, Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department responded that he wants “to reaffirm that these construction projects fall well within the scope of China’s sovereignty and are legitimate, justified and reasonable […]” and that China hopes “relevant countries will work together in the same direction to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”.
A strong stand against China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea combined with its own effort to re-engage with its partners has rekindled the trust in Washington’s commitment toward the region.
The Shangri-La Dialogue reflected the larger consensus on the need to maintain peace and stability in the region. Participants expressed their concerns regarding China’s aggressive and unilateral actions in the disputed waters while Beijing continued to brush aside all warnings and maintain that China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands it claims in the South China Sea. One other significant point that came through the dialogue was that India failed to push its way from the corner of the room to the discussion table. India’s decision to not send the Defence Minister to the dialogue was a step back from all the progress New Delhi had made under the Narendra Modi government.
Ever since the Narendra Modi government came into power in 2014, New Delhi has been taking bolder steps in foreign policy especially in the Indo-Pacific. It suggests toward a political will in India to play a more active security role in the region. For the US too, India is a crucial player in balancing the security issues rising in the region. India and US even signed the Joint Strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region — indicating New Delhi’s will to soften its Non Alignment policy where required. India was also the last leg of Carter’s Asia-Pacific tour and this partnership is being seen as a crucial nexus in the emerging security architecture. However, India’s poor attendance in the Shangri-La Dialogue suggests that New Delhi may still be suffering from poor strategic decisions. The first rule of the game is to show up. Although India did send a delegation to the dialogue, the impact was of less significant in the absence of its Defence Minister. In order to establish its credibility as a key security provider, India will have to do more than just sign strategic visions.The geopolitical dynamics of the region is quickly changing. The rise of China, the US rebalance and an emerging security architecture is all adding toward this change. China is keen on establishing itself as global power rather than just a regional power. The conflict in the South China Sea has a fundamental flaw — China does not even acknowledge its dispute in the region. According to Beijing, its claims are valid and legal and it is justified for China to consider the islands as its sovereign territory. While the actual disputes in the South China Sea does not directly involve either India or the US, the fact that it is home to crucial sea lanes of communication makes it of strategic interest. No one country should have the power to dominate such a crucial waterway and definitely not a hostile one.
Washington is looking to strengthen its existing partnerships and build on new ones to balance the security architecture in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean. The middle powers of India, Australia, Indonesia and Japan will play critical roles in such a model and it is important that all these nations play its part well. While India may not concern itself extensively with the disputes in the South China Sea — although it should because it is New Delhi’s gateway to its ‘Act East Policy‘ — it cannot ignore an increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. India and China has been in a strategic competition for decades as two rising Asian powers. Both nations are now looking out toward the sea and are bound to infringe upon each other’s strategic interests. New Delhi is concerned with Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean region especially with islands nations considered to be within its own sphere of strategic influence such as, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. India realises the need for multilateral engagement in the region to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean, reflected through its efforts in engaging with other powers in the region like Australia, Japan and the US — particularly in the maritime domain. At the same time, Washington has indicated toward the need for a more prominent Indian presence in the Asia-Pacific to help sustain its leadership and work on the idea of a shared responsibility. India must stand tall on its renewed commitments to the region and play an active security role not just in the Indian Ocean region but also in the Asia-Pacific.
The Shangri-La Dialogue has provided a glimpse into the state of affairs in the Asia-Pacific and flagged some real issues that could potentially destabilise the security status quo in the region. China is unlikely to stop its actions in the South China Sea and will continue to build and erect structure in the South China Sea in an attempt to fortify its claims in the South China Sea. While it appears that the US will challenge any action that steps over its interests in the region, the real question is how far either nation will go in testing the waters.
Update of August 09, 2015 by offiziere.ch
The Shangri La Dialogue 2015 was a topic in episode 80 of Sea Control. In the first segment, Natalie Sambhi speaks with Bloomberg’s Indonesia correspondent Chris Brummitt about the Shangri La Dialogue 2015. He observed that the presentation by Carter was less confrontational as the one of his predecessor Chuck Hagel a year ago. China on its part stated that anyone can travel through the China Sea and that the Chinese land reclamation is nothing unusual. Even the two delivered restraint speeches, there was no sign of a compromise. Another topic was the influence of the terror organisation “Islamic State” in the Asia region. He also speaks about his interview with the Indonesian Defence Minister. In the second segment, Sambhi and Andrew Carr from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University go into more details of the topics, which was raised at the Shangri La Dialogue 2015. In the third and last segment, Herizal Hazri from the Asia Foundation gives a regional perspective on the recent Rohingya asylum seeker crisis, Malaysian politics and the future for ASEAN.
Listen to episode #80 immediately
IISS content about the Shangri-La Dialogue