Archive for the ‘Northeast Asia’ Category
Why did China downgrade its representation at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue? Aside from US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s expected articulation of specifics regarding the US rebalancing to Asia (not pivot, as I’ve noted), this was the headline that dominated the Asia security meet in Singapore this weekend.
In contrast to last year, when Beijing sent Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie who spoke at the proceedings, this year China sent People’s Liberation Army Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, who is vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences. A defense ministry official confirmed that both the ranking and number of Chinese participants were both the lowest to date.
In a great post, Josh Rogin laid out three separate theories as to the downgrade. The first is that China’s domestic political transition means the country is more cautious about showing up to forums where they may be hurt domestically; the second is that Beijing has concluded the forum is too easily a space for regional medium sized powers to gang up on China, and the third is that China is trying to send a message that it opposes regional multilateral forums that include the US and that it wants to establish that China’s relationship with its neighbors are not an issue Washington should be included in.
But there is no reason why these three explanations should be mutually exclusive. In fact, in my view, none of the single explanations are sufficiently strong enough to stand on their own. China has faced many questions from the US and ASEAN about the South China Sea in previous years, and it openly admits on a regular basis that it faces a plethora of domestic challenges. Furthermore, there have been other recent forums where Beijing has sent a high-level representation. So why is it reacting this way this year in this forum?
My own take on this question is this. The two issues that were expected to dominate this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue were US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s specifics on the US rebalancing to Asia as well as developments in the South China Sea due to the saber-rattling between Beijing and Manila over the Scarborough Shoal. Recent history suggests that the following rough pattern often ensues when China reacts to these two issues, which others have noted as well:
1) Beijing issues some sort of statement that often has a clumsy or harsh part
2) That part of the statement grabs headlines and is carried by the media
3) That triggers domestic uproar in China about how the world wants to contain China
4) China’s smaller neighbors fear either the response or what it says about Chinese nationalism
5) In some cases, the net result is these smaller countries moving closer to Washington
6) Beijing has to move into damage control at the regional, domestic and international levels
While this pattern is of course not exact by any means and the process does vary on a case by case basis, it does roughly capture what has been going on over the last few years, particularly in relation to the South China Sea. I think China recognizes this, and is gradually trying to search for the best way to deal with it. With the sensitivities surrounding the Scarborough Shoal and the ‘rebalance’ articulation this year, the risk of this dynamic playing out was very high.
At the same time, as others have pointed out, this is also a particularly sensitive year domestically for China, not just because of the political transition, but because China has already contended with more than its fair share of unwanted regional and international attention, from the Bo Xilai scandal to the Chen Guangcheng episode. This has raised questions about the very viability of the leadership transition process.
So my sense is that China has decided that it had better skirt this whole process because it has the potential to destabilize things at the domestic, regional and internal levels at a particularly sensitive time. As one Chinese military source put it, it was simply “not advantageous” for senior military officials to speak at the annual meeting.
Some may conclude that China’s no-show conveys a secretiveness and insularity that when paired with its aggression on territorial claims makes for a pretty potent formula for engineering even more fear about Beijing’s rise. While this may be true, there are a few things Beijing has done that at least attempted to appear reassuring. First, most of the response of China’s representative, People’s Liberation Army Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan to Panetta’s announcement that the US will shift most of its warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, the highest level representative present at Shangri-La for China, was quite calibrated:
First, we should not treat this as a disaster. I believe that this is the United States’ response to its own national interests, its fiscal difficulties and global security developments. The second sentence (of my response) is that we should not treat this indifferently. We must see that we’re facing extremely complex and one could sometimes even say quite serious developments, and we must raise our awareness of peril, and prepare to cope with all kinds of complex and serious circumstances.
Focus Taiwan has the third part of Ren’s comments, which place an emphasis on vigilance rather than confrontation (though the last sentence may seem quite threatening):
A third principle that China should adopt in regard to Panetta’s statement is to “get ready for the worst and work hard for the best”. Elaborating on the third principle, Ren said one who does not have strength will not be given a say in international affairs. “Therefore, it is incumbent on the People’s Liberation Army to perfect its military strategy, strengthen its defense construction and raise its combat power”. He went on to quote Mao Zedong as saying, “If we are not offended, we will not offend others; if we are offended, we will definitely offend the offenders. That means, he said, that when China’s fundamental interests are threatened, it will strike back so fiercely that the enemy will feel frightened”.
Second, lest one worries that this says something about China showing up at regional fora or about the way it is engaging more generally, think again. Chinese Defense Minister Liang, who also just visited the United States in early May, was not only present at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) which recently concluded in Cambodia, but also reportedly explained China’s stance on the South China Sea directly to Southeast Asian participants. Beijing also characteristically showered Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair, with 19 million dollars in aid before the meeting. So there’s something specific about the Shangri-La Dialogue that explains Liang’s absence — whether it be US involvement or related risks with respect to what was going to be discussed.
Might the Chinese have offended Singapore, which takes its role as host of this Asia security forum very seriously? Well, note what has been occurring in terms of Beijing’s diplomacy in Singapore beyond Shangri-La. Earlier in the week before the dialogue, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi was in Singapore where he met his counterpart K Shanmugam, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. And starting today, Chinese Community Party secretary Wang Yang will be in Singapore for an official visit.
So while we should be mindful about the negative implications of China’s no-show at Shangri- La, we should also note the caution and nuance that Beijing exercises in its regional diplomacy even in a time of perceived distress, and be cognizant of broader regional developments before drawing conclusions about how Beijing engages more generally.
Picture: US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, who did not attend this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Source: Secretary of Defense feed on Flickr
Earlier this week, I attended an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok in September this year.
This is the first time Russia will host APEC since it finally entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) last year after more than 18 years of talks. And we were fortunate to have with us both Russia’s senior official for APEC, Ambassador Gennady Ovechko, and former White House Coordinator for APEC (and current CSIS political economy program head) Matthew Goodman.
What struck me most was not the list of priorities Russia has for the upcoming meeting, which Ambassador Ovechko explored in depth. Rather, it was the worry that Mr. Goodman expressed regarding the future of APEC as an organization. While he stressed the grouping has been important as a sign of US commitment to the Asia-Pacific, a workhorse for the pick and shovel work of economic integration, and an incubator of broader regional and global economic issues, he seemed concerned about its ability to sustain its momentum and relevance.
He attributed this worry to several reasons. First, the attention devoted to APEC, already much lower than it deserves, tends to ebb and flow and is generally less in an election year. Structurally, since APEC is a sophisticated organization with moving parts, it is easy to get lost in the maze of acronyms and the sea of groups and sub-groups. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the momentum in an organization like APEC is such that it needs to produce consistent and concrete results.
What does this all mean for Vladivostok in 2012 and beyond? Mr. Goodman had a few suggestions. He stressed the importance of continuity and encouraged Russia to move forward on several initiatives the United States made progress on last year, including on health and women. And he returned several times to a point about focusing on “a few key wins” within different priority areas instead of trying to get a whole spectrum of issues addressed.
It was not clear from Ambassador Ovechko’s remarks to what degree Russia had or would internalize these considerations. He had a lot of praise for APEC as a “consistent, business-minded forum”, and spoke of great enthusiasm in Moscow for the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific compared to the doom associated these days with Europe. But one hopes this commendation is tempered with some of the caution that Mr. Goodman evinced.
You can hear an audio of the proceedings here.
In his remarks yesterday before departing to Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell mentioned the importance Washington placed in encouraging India’s Look East policy, a strategy launched by former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1991 to boost ties with East Asia which has been gaining steam over the last few years. Campbell said:
Part of the U.S. approach to the Asia-Pacific region is a deeper dialogue with India and encouraging India’s “Look East” strategy and so we will be talking about specific initiatives that we will be taking with Delhi to support that effort as part of our Asia-Pacific consultations with them.
Campbell’s comments are in line with what other US officials have been saying recently. In her visit to India in June last year for instance, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton encouraged India “not just to look East, but to engage East and act East”.
I’ve emphasized the importance of India’s Look East Policy and its increasing momentum in several previous pieces, most recently here, but also here and here. There has been and will continue to be a lot of commentary on it this year because 2012 marks two decades of India-ASEAN relations, and both parties are commemorating it with a series of meetings that will end with one in New Delhi later in the year.
Let me just briefly quote a few paragraphs from a recent article I wrote on where I see India’s Look East Policy going with respect to Southeast Asia.
Launched in 1991 by then-Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, India’s “Look East” policy was long regarded by many as lacking in vision and substance. Yet as India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) prepare to mark two decades of formal relations later this year, there is much to celebrate. Given the recent advances New Delhi has made in its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors, as well as with ASEAN as an institution, both parties can proudly toast the progress achieved thus far. But they should also use the anniversary as an opportunity to strengthen ties further.
Despite these successes over the past few years, there are still several ways that India and its ASEAN partners can enhance relations even further. While improving commercial relations with Myanmar is an important step, infrastructure development and trade will always be limited unless New Delhi finds a long-term solution to the ethnic insurgencies that plague India’s northeast. Only by addressing that issue will Myanmar emerge as a true gateway for India into Southeast Asia. Much more can also be done to enhance India’s trade with ASEAN nations more generally, which is expected to grow to a modest $70 billion…
WPR articles are often fully available only to subscribers, but you can read parts of it here.