Singapore — This year’s annual “Shangri-La Dialogue,” run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, kicked off last night with a speech by Indonesian president Yudhoyono. Delegates from 28 nations are attending, including a healthy contingent from U.S. think tanks (like myself). The big question on everyone’s minds is, where are the Chinese? Last year, the Chinese minister of defense came, leading to a contentious (for Shangri-La) discussion session after his speech. This year, a much lower-level group from Beijing is in attendance. Last year’s tensions came partly from then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s unveiling of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. This year, Leon Panetta tried to put some meat on the bones of the Obama strategy for Asia, stating, among other things, that the U.S. Navy would shift its balance toward the Pacific to reach a 60–40 split with the Atlantic, that the U.S. would focus on “rapidly deployable”weapons systems like the F-22 fighter and Virginia-class submarines, and that we would increase our presence in the Indian Ocean through more port visits.
But all that was overshadowed by the absence of a high-ranking Chinese delegation. Not only did Panetta show up, but so did Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, and the new commander of Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear. This made the Chinese absence all the more noticeable, to which was added the fact that, unlike the U.S. and other nations, China was conducting no bilateral meetings this year, which is really what makes the conference valuable, at least from most governments’ perspectives. The U.S. delegation is having trilateral meetings at the ministerial level with Australia and Japan (Japan’s vice minister is representing the country, since the defense minister is being shuffled out of the cabinet this week), and with Japan and South Korea.
Speculation is rampant as to why China is a relative no-show. Talking with U.S. officials and Asia watchers, the two most likely reasons seem to be:: first, China did not want a repeat of last year’s contentious appearance, and second, Beijing still just doesn’t feel there’s much benefit in showing up (clearly, the two are linked). True, there are other forums for discussing Asian security issues, such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting + and the East Asian Summit, both of which are still evolving. But Shangri-La is going on its 11th year, and has become a showcase for many smaller nations. Vietnam, which also sent a smaller delegation this year, has used the dialogue as a way to increase its regional presence. The fact that China feels there is little upside to engaging with senior U.S. officials at an established multilateral gathering might be an important indication of how differently Washington and Beijing view the responsibilities of their regional roles. One year might be an aberration, but if China consistently snubs the Asia community at a major gathering like this, then we’ll have a better understanding of the limitations of engagement with China.
Of course the cherished idea of engagement has already taken a battering over the past decade thanks to distrust, mini-crises, and the Chinese penchant for holding military-to-military talks hostage to changing U.S. policies it dislikes. It’s a reminder that Asia, despite not having had a major conflict in decades, is a place where everyone walks delicately, either out of growing fear of China or because of the ever-present knowledge of tensions that lie buried just beneath the surface.