The Shangri-La Dialogue sets the compass for strategic ties in the Asia-Pacific region. India’s absence at the recent Singapore meet exposes the bankruptcy of its security policy
On the surface of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue that concluded in Singapore on Sunday, things were calm and rational. The various contending parties put across their point of view with logic and some certitude. But it was difficult not to miss the flash of steel beneath the velvet gloves. The Asia-Pacific region has emerged as an engine of prosperity for the world economy but it is wracked with conflict and tension, and the presence of an irrational state actor, North Korea. More important, it is witnessing the emergence of a new world power, China, a fact that inevitably creates turbulence.
As China’s inexorable rise shakes the balance of power in Asia, if not the world, a contest is now on full display. The rise of a new power inevitably upsets the existing power balance of a region. So is the case with China as its economic development, accompanied by a massive military modernisation, is tilting the balance of power in its favour. But the opaqueness of its decision-making and its assertiveness along its borders have pushed countries of the Asia Pacific region to bandwagon with the existing hegemon — the United States.
China and U.S.
The China of today no longer shies away from a fight, whether it involves fists or words. It establishes parity by publishing its own human rights report on the U.S.; it sends its spy ships to mirror the American practice of spying on its coast; and it is developing military capabilities which makes it clear that its competition is with the U.S.
The recent history of the Asia Pacific region has not been a happy one. It has known war and massacre through most of the 20th century and now that it is on the high road to prosperity, there are worries that tensions born out of territorial claims, mainly maritime, or the actions of irrational actors like North Korea, could trigger a new round of conflict which would have a devastating effect on the region.
Both China and the U.S. have been regular participants at the Shangri-La event which is hosted by the Institute of Strategic Studies, headquartered in London. The dialogue is now seen as the Davos of the strategic community around the world. No wonder, it draws in high-level participation — prime ministers, defence ministers, generals and admirals — from the Asia-Pacific region, if not the world. Even though they are in competition, both the U.S. and China see the Shangri-La exercise as being useful because they are too aware that their interdependence demands that their competition be moderated. Yet, there should be no doubt that their participation is part of a carefully calibrated exercise whose goal is to further their respective ends, which is hegemonic control of the international system.
China has clear cause for worry. In response as it were, the U.S. is “rebalancing” its presence in the Asia-Pacific region and shoring up its alliance system. Beijing’s somewhat incredible maritime claims have revitalised the old American alliance system in the region and added important players like Vietnam to the mix. The theme of the keynote address of Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the Shangri-La meet was the need for “strategic trust” in the region. He did not name China but it was difficult not to see who he was talking about when said that “somewhere in the region, there have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims, and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics.”
Just what Beijing has wrought was apparent from the remarks of Itsunori Onodera, Defence Minister of Japan, who laid out the Abe administration’s rationale for not only strengthening Japan’s economy but also its military capabilities: “a strong Japan will play a responsible role in the area of regional security…” He spelt out the steps being taken by the new administration to move beyond Japan’s pacifist Constitution, as well as the steps being taken to shore up the Asean.
The key American formulation, “the pivot” (now termed “rebalance to Asia”), had already been declared in Hillary Clinton’s October 2011 speech. On Saturday morning, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel fleshed out what it meant: a shoring up of the U.S. and its allies to deal with threats from North Korea, the “ongoing land and maritime disputes” of the region, natural disasters, drug trafficking and, importantly, the “growing threat of disruptive activities in space and cyberspace.” Though he claimed that the rebalancing was a “diplomatic, economic and cultural strategy,” he bluntly spelled out the manner in which the American military capability would grow in the region. The U.S., he declared, was “investing in promising technologies and capabilities that will enhance our decisive military edge well into the future.”
None of this scares the Chinese who think that history and economics are on their side. The feisty Chinese delegation led by Lt General Qi Jianguo, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA, was at the forefront of the debates in the various sessions. The delegates contested the views they disagreed with and pushed their own argument with vigour, and a considerable amount of self-confidence. But they cannot but be aware that they need to break the coalition that is ranged against them. General Qi’s formal remarks were peppered with phrases like “peace”, “development”, “win-win”. In keeping with the Shangri-La style, he alluded obliquely to the U.S. when he said that “one should take the legitimate concerns of others into consideration instead of maximising one’s own interests”. But there was no wavering on the bottom line: dialogue and consultations for peace were fine but they could not imply “unconditional compromise,” and the Chinese “resolve and commitment to safeguarding core national interests always stand steadfast.”
All this means that if the region is unable to come up with a means of settling its disputes peacefully through bilateral or multilateral processes, or through recourse to the international law, it could be in for an unsettling ride in the future. As it is, in recent months, tensions in the region have spiked. In January, Japan claimed that a Chinese vessel had established a weapons radar lock-on on a Japanese ship near the Senkaku islands. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is on record saying that his country is prepared to use force to protect the islands. Further south, in mid-2012, the Chinese took control of the Scarborough Shoals and blocked Philippines’ fishing vessels from accessing the area. Last week, a Chinese vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing vessel, triggering protests in Vietnam.
Where does India fit in all this? Considering the importance of the meeting and India’s declared “Look East” policy, the absence of its Defence Minister A.K. Antony was inexplicable. This was especially so because Mr. Antony was scheduled to be in Singapore a day after the meet, en route to Australia, and an Indian flotilla is currently undertaking a two-month deployment in South East Asia. Platforms like the Shangri-La Dialogue are important because not only can you put across your views to a specialist international audience, the process can assist in providing credibility to your ideas and views by putting them through an open discussion.
New Delhi’s misplaced notions
India is not a disinterested actor in the drama that is being played out in the Asia-Pacific, as the recent incident in Ladakh showed. Like all people with disputes, it also needs friends and allies, something it should have learnt from its experience of 1962. Opting out of an event like the Shangri-La Dialogue brings out the bankruptcy of India’s security policy which seems to be based on some misplaced notions of non-alignment, or a kind of self-defeating sense of detachment.
International politics remains a ruthless and dangerous business. There was a time when great powers displayed their might through wars of conquest and open manifestations of hegemony. In today’s networked world, great powers bend over backwards to show that they are paragons of virtue. But the reality is that the eternal contest for dominance and hegemony continues and, in this, there is no room for abstention. India’s other shibboleth — strategic autonomy — can only take life if choices are actually exercised.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)