The Shangri-La Dialogue has been Southeast Asia’s premier defense meeting for a decade now. The event hosted by the London-based International and Strategic Studies is the “track-one” platform for government officials to discuss regional dynamics in one of the world’s must-watch areas for the future.
The Shangri-La Dialogue is the Munich Security Conference for Southeast Asia and the region as a whole. It is attended by high-level government officials from various countries. The SLD has managed to attract the attention of high-level government officials from countries such as Russia, China, South Korea and Oceanian countries. Most impressively, the SLD has also caught the eye of Pentagon officials in Washington. It is a chance for the United States to introduce their approach relating to Southeast Asia and its relationship with China.
The dialogue this year highlighted the heightening tensions between the United States and China. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan amped up the pressure on China in the dialogue, by indirectly addressing them when he said that “some in our region” used “a toolkit of coercion.” Shanahan was referring to China and its island-building activities in the South China Sea, and its use of cyber attacks as tools in China’s arsenal for coercive diplomacy.
China, in the other hand, rebuffed the Secretary’s suggestions that they are engaging in coercive diplomacy. Referring to accusations of island-building in the South China Sea, the Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe called it the ‘legitimate rights of a sovereign state’. The General gave a stern warning that China would not be threatened, or in his words “preyed upon.”
Belt and Road Initiative vs Free and Open Indo Pacific
Under President Obama, the United States introduced a new foreign policy strategy with regards to Asia. This vision was known as “the Pivot.” President Obama wanted the US to focus more on Asia and to shift away from the Middle East and Europe. The strategy was introduced not long after US forces withdrew from Iraq, and had also started withdrawing from Afghanistan. Obama had confidence that the EU is capable of protecting themselves with the help of NATO. So, US strategy pivoted to the east, focusing on Asia. Then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, argued that the region housed half of the world’s population, and was thus very important to American interests. Clinton outlined six steps that she hoped would cement the US position in Asia — including strengthening multilateral relations, expanding trade and investment, forging a broad military presence, advancing human rights and democracy, and engaging in defense diplomacy with the region.
Some argued however that the policy was “premature,” as China does not have the means to sufficiently threaten the US. Pivoting away from the Middle East is not a smart move at all, especially after evaluating the recent situation in that region. Since 2013, the Middle East has plunged back into a state of disarray, with events such as the Syrian Civil War, the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, the insurgency in Iraq, and the rise of ISIS. And now, the Saudi Arabia-Iran cold war that would definitely require the full attention of the United States. Europe also requires the full support of the United States in order to maintain its security, because of the dysfunction in their security infrastructures. Arguably, Asia is not as “chaotic” as the Middle East, though it nevertheless remains an essential region that is crucial for the interest of the United States of America.
Obama’s plans were dashed by the government shutdown in 2013, which prevented funding from Congress and forced Obama to remain in Washington, which prevented him from promoting his policy at the APEC Summit in 2013. In the end, Obama ended his presidency with a foreign policy focused more on the Middle East.
Current Asia strategy under President Trump
Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017 after campaigning with strong anti-China rhetoric. He labeled China as a “currency manipulator.” He received a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president shortly after his election, which irked Beijing as well as some US lawmakers (as the US has traditionally adhered to the one-China policy). During the campaign, he also vowed to put 45% tariffs on Chinese exports to the US. Right now, we are stuck in a perpetual trade war with the Chinese that he recently ramped up, by putting 25% tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports.
It is clear that Trump does not support warmer relations with China. How does that translate into his foreign policy?
Under his administration, the Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, coinciding with the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2019. The strategy report denounced China, accusing Beijing of trying to reorder the region “to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce other nations.” The United States officially branded the Chinese a “revisionist power.”
Trump introduced his vision for Asia-Pacific in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in November 2017. That report presented a vision as “one in which all nations, regardless of size, are able to exercise their sovereignty free from coercion by other countries.” The report also stated that such a vision promotes “sustainable growth and connectivity in the region.” Trump emphasized the freedom of navigation and fair and reciprocal trade.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative
China’s response to the US pivot and FOIP programs is the “Belt and Road Initiative.” First introduced in 2013 when President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan and Indonesia, this is a global development strategy adopted by the Chinese to build infrastructure, pour investment into 152 countries and international organizations in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and even the Americas. This is the most ambitious global development plan ever envisioned, and almost immediately it provoked concern about Beijing’s intentions with the plan.
This project is an “unsettling extension of China’s rising powers,” according to two analysts from the Council of Foreign Relations. The US administration expressed the belief that this is only a cover for a Beijing-led regional development, military expansion and establishment of various Beijing-led institutions in Asia.
So far, the BRI project has had developments in various Southeast Asian countries through development projects. Indonesia signed various MOUs with the Chinese concerning BRI developments in the recent forum, and Malaysia signed multiple investment deals with them. Thailand constructed high-speed railways with the Chinese, and Laos did the same.
Sri Lanka is an example of the hidden dangers of China’s policy. Sri Lanka fell into a “debt-trap” with the Chinese. China lent the Sri Lankans money to build a port and sent two Chinese companies to build them. After it was finished, the port suffered operational losses that rendered the Sri Lankans unable to repay the debt to Beijing. Beijing responded by taking over the port with a 99-year lease. This is an example of China’s debt-trap diplomacy that the world would do well to pay attention to.
The Choice: China or the United States & Japan
Asia is faced with two options. Rely on the Chinese and their ambitious investment schemes, or continue to stick with the United States and Japan in ensuring Asian security and development. At the Shangri-La dialogue, these two visions put Asian leaders in a tough spot, as they have to choose between a regional power and a world superpower. Compounding the challenges for Asian countries, Beijing and Washington are engaged in a trade war, and diplomatic standoffs that are bound to cause headaches in the future. Everyone in the region benefited from a US-led order in the region, but nobody is willing to anger Beijing with that belief. Singapore Prime Minister Lee-Hsien Loong sees a deficit of mutual trust between the US and China, making it difficult for the two sides to understand each other. Loong believed that the world needs to “accept” China’s new position as a global power, rather than be concerned and skeptical of them.
Trump’s policy arguably lacks the details that the BRI had. It is vague, but it hits the right notes in its ideas to reach a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Uncertainties remain, however, as to whether or not Trump can turn his policy into reality. Adjustments are needed in order for him to sell his plans to Asian leaders.
China’s promises of investment have arguably attracted more interest from those in the region. The plan is more detailed and already possessed a track record of a successful implementation (Indonesia, Malaysia and even Sri Lanka). While the Chinese money is a blessing for those countries, the potential of it being used by Beijing to strangle them into China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiativedebt is also a real possibility.