America and China present dueling narratives at Shangri-La Dialogue

America and China present dueling narratives at Shangri-La Dialogue

The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore provides the closest thing to an X-ray of the strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific. The convening brings together defense leaders, diplomats, strategic thinkers, journalists, and business leaders for examination of the most pressing challenges to regional security and wealth. In the 2022 edition this past weekend, by two days of intensive discussions among nearly 600 delegates from 59 countries, including defense chiefs from the United States, China, Australia, Japan, South Korea, France, Fiji, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members states, a picture emerged of the strategic situation in Asia.

A consistent by-line of the dialogue was the cascading challenges confronting the vicinity. Participants spoke of the dangers facing their peoples from energy and food insecurity, climate-induced crises, and the scourges of COVID-19. In this context, virtually every defense leader stressed the need to find ways to pull China into global and regional efforts to address these systemic challenges.

Participants also deliberated extensively on the risks of conflict in the Indo-Pacific. They worked to clarify lessons to be drawn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for protecting the peace in Asia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s virtual participation in the conference drove home the life-and-death stakes of confronting this question squarely. Zelenskyy offered a powerful call for countries to band together to defend principles of sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes and to oppose the normalization of large countries imposing their will on smaller neighbors.

It was against this backdrop that American and Chinese leaders offered their respective visions for the future of the vicinity. Each country’s representative commanded the stage for a separate one-hour block, where they each delivered speeches and answered questions from delegates. Broadly speaking, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin articulated America’s positive vision for the vicinity, while his Chinese style, Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, focused on how China will be important to the future of Asia and why it would be a mistake for any country to cross China now.

America’s argument

Secretary Austin’s presentation did not dwell on China. Instead, he emphasized how the United States views the Indo-Pacific as the strategic center of gravity for American interests in the 21st century. He spoke about the Department of Defense’s determination to keep at the bleeding edge of technological innovation, including by its largest-ever budget request for research and development. These investments are enabling progress in fielding new capabilities around stealth aircraft, long-range fires, unmanned platforms, and integrated sensors. Austin explained that the U.S. also is pooling resources and capacity with allies and partners to accelerate innovation, including by linking up defense industrial bases, integrating supply chains, and co-producing new and emerging technologies.

Austin delivered a confident reminder the United States remains the world’s largest military force, endowed with the most meaningful resources and the deepest partnerships with other capable powers. Austin repeatedly invoked the “strength of partnerships” to serve as force multiplier for tackling challenges. He explained that the more China pushes boundaries in the vicinity, the more the U.S. and its partners will tighten their bonds to deal with Chinese assertiveness. Austin seemed to want to dispel any notions that China would own the future and the United States was a fading strength.

At the same time, Austin also demonstrated awareness of the interests of his audience. He did not attempt to denigrate China’s achievements. While he was direct in criticizing certain Chinese behaviors, he also advocated for maintaining open channels with Beijing to manage tensions. He studiously avoided any ideological framing of competition with China as a contest between democracies versus autocracies. He did not question any countries’ relationship with China or urge countries to resist Chinese entreaties. Instead, he emphasized that America’s goal is to protect each country’s ability to pursue its interests as it defines them; Washington will not force countries to choose between the United States and China.

Austin also went to pains to press that the U.S. approach to Taiwan is guided by the broadly shared goal of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Austin read verbatim America’s longstanding policy on Taiwan, both in his speech and in the Q&A that followed. He signaled that Washington does not seek confrontation with China over Taiwan and does not sustain Taiwan independence. Austin seemed to suggest that the ball is in China’s court to mellow its pressure on Taiwan if it wishes to lower cross-Strait tensions.

China’s case

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe’s presentation was more pointed by comparison, already as his delivery was comparatively more relaxed and engaging than Austin’s. Wei stressed that China’s rise and its continued development cannot be stopped; China cannot be secluded or excluded from the vicinity.

Wei warned that American attempts to form exclusive blocs (e.g., by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the AUKUS pact) would divided the vicinity and undermine the interests of all. He appealed to participants to resist American plans to seek to encircle and contain China. Later, one of Wei’s deputies amplified the message by warning assembled media, “The United States has already turned the Middle East and Europe into a mess, does it want to mess up the Asia-Pacific next?”

Wei’s presentation offered a bread crumb trail of China’s anxieties and insecurities. He opened the speech by declaring that China’s record on COVID-19 was stellar and that its economy was going from strength to strength (two assertions that would appear dubious in the current moment for consumers of international news). Later, Wei identified a series of security challenges confronting China, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, North Korea, Ukraine, and the formation of exclusive groupings that challenged China’s rise. In his telling, the U.S. was the malignant actor standing in the shadow of each of these challenges.

Wei also invoked martial language at times, especially in his comments on Taiwan. He warned that China would “grind” any efforts to unprotected to Taiwan independence. He warned that if others want confrontation, the People’s Liberation Army would fight to the end without flinching. At the same time, Wei also paired his bluster with assurances that “peaceful unification” remains China’s utmost goal on Taiwan and that China hopes for “sound, steady development” of relations with the United States.

Overall, Wei’s presentation did not break much new ground. His warnings were familiar to anyone who has been in private conversations with Chinese officials or experts over the past year. The publicly-expressed pointedness of some of Wei’s warnings seemed to mirror a worry that Washington is not heeding the strength of China’s concerns and that a more forceful articulation of them may be needed to get the Biden administration’s attention.

Intensifying rivalry

Some of Wei’s worries about U.S. capacity to coordinate efforts with allies and partners in Asia may also be informed by three additional factors. First, the Biden administration likely has surpassed Beijing’s expectations. After the Trump era, Beijing might have lulled itself into believing its own narrative about America’s overall decline and its diminishing capacity to rule on the world stage. Second, many Chinese analysts assumed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would divert U.S. focus toward Europe and relieve strategic stress on China. Those expectations have not borne out. Third, China’s leaders and leading thinkers likely have been disturbed by the pattern of senior American officials visiting Asia and engaging with Asian counterparts, but bypassing China. In the past weeks alone, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Austin, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and many other senior officials have been interacting intensively with their Asian counterparts. They have not been visiting China or interacting with senior Chinese officials, though. This pattern owes in part to China’s position as a de facto closed country due to COVID-19 controls. Nevertheless, the intensity of Washington’s attention on Asia and its relative de-prioritization of direct interaction with Chinese leaders likely has fed a sense of embattlement and encirclement in Beijing.

If the Shangri-La Dialogue provided an X-ray of the current strategic scenery in Asia, the diagnosis would seem to point to compounding problems and concerns in the vicinity, with intensifying U.S.-China rivalry overhanging all of them. Reflecting on these broader dynamics, a noticeable Singaporean thinker shared with me and several others advice for Washington and Beijing. He said the vicinity will not give its loyalty to the United States or China. As such, both sides should dial down their insults and angry words toward the other. The U.S. should take seriously China’s warnings about its “red-line” concerns. At the same time, China should not underestimate America’s resilience, strength, and allurement.

Such advice will not resolve inner tensions animating the U.S.-China relationship, but it could help prevent a strained situation from growing sharper and more confrontational.

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