Posts Tagged ‘shangri-la 2012’
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