Participants at the 2016 IISS Shangri La Dialogue (Source: IISS/Flickr)
In early June, dignitaries from over fifty countries gathered for the 15th iteration of the Shangri La meeting, organized by the prestigious London-based Institute for International Strategic Studies. Named for the hotel that serves as its venue rather than for the mythical Tibetan kingdom of peace and harmony of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizons, the forum aspires to the less ambitious yet vitally important goal of fashioning a system conducive to the creation of a secure environment in the Asian Pacific region. Keynote speakers, typically the heads of state or defense chiefs of their respective nations, lay out their countries’ positions and respond to questions from counterparts as well as defense intellectuals and representatives of concerned corporations with multinational interests.
In a symbolic gesture of Beijing’s regard for the meeting, the Chinese delegation was led by a deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of the PRC’s Central Military Commission, a rank considerably lower than the heads of delegations sent by other countries. Attendees commented that the PRC delegation’s members seemed apprehensive about the upcoming decision of the United Nations Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in the Philippines’ case against the People’s Republic of China’s 9-dash line claiming jurisdiction over eighty percent of the South China Sea. Beijing, which refused to participate in the case, has stated that it will not recognize the ITLOS verdict. Should the ruling favor the Philippines’ position, as widely expected, and the PRC not comply, also as expected, there are fears that respect for international law will be undermined.
In what was considered an affirmation of the importance of the forum as well as of New Delhi’s rising concern with events in the region, India, not usually represented at Shangri La, sent its defense minister. Notable for its absence was the ordinarily faithful Australian delegation, assumed to be the result of its upcoming elections rather than because of a diminished interest in the Asian-Pacific region.
Although members discussed threats from the Islamic State, terrorism, and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China’s expansionist activities in the South China Sea were by far the major source of the forum’s concern, as they had been in 2015 as well. In a speech to the U.S. Naval Academy shortly before the forum began, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had described China as building a great wall of isolation around itself with its intransigent attitude toward solving disputed areas of the South China Sea. His address at Shangri La might be described as measured in tone but with unmistakable messages to the People’s Republic. Observing that one country, China, had reclaimed over 2,000 acres of land in the disputed areas, more than all the other claimants combined, and that these activities had occurred in only the last 18 months, Carter stated America’s opposition to any further militarization of disputed features: it would support the right of claimants to pursue international legal arbitration and other peaceful means to resolve disputes while opposing any coercive tactics designed to resolve the disputes. Should the disputed Scarborough Shoal be militarized, there would be unspecified consequences. The U.S. would continue to fly and sail in areas as permitted by international law.
Carter suggested that regional institutions be strengthened, offering China a place in a principled security architecture that would respect rights, not might. Using the word “principled” no less than 38 times, Carter hinted strongly that the PRC’s stance had fallen far short of the definition. Implicitly rebutting notions that the U.S. was in decline, Carter noted that the country had made great strides in both jobs and GDP since its worst recession since the 1929 depression, and that progress would continue because of America’s dynamic and innovative businesses, world-class universities, strong commitment to the rule of law and domestic energy revolution. Its military’s unmatched operational edge and capabilities were, said Carter, being sustained. Tacitly reassuring those who doubted America’s commitment to the region, the secretary emphasized that the country’s rebalance to Asia would continue to bring the best platforms and people to the region, as well as increasing economic and diplomatic engagement with it.
The PRC’s representative, Admiral Sun Jianguo, delivered his country’s reply. In a spirited address delivered at a decibel level that embarrassed even some members of his own delegation, Sun stated that China neither made trouble nor feared trouble. Unlike the U.S., an outsider to the region, the PRC did not and never would seek hegemony. In Sun’s narrative, the cause of instability in Asia was the United States’ military alliances and indeed presence in the region. America’s motive was to thwart China’s path to peace through its “zero-sum mentality” rather than, as China wanted, strive for win-win cooperation. By contrast, America’s alliances had provided support that was enabling small countries to make trouble against big countries. If Sun had other large countries in mind besides China, his remarks gave no clue as to their identity. In any case, the result was that the U.S. had single-handedly militarized the South China Sea and sown discord among heretofore harmonious Asia states.
Responding to both Carter’s words at Annapolis and his address to Shangri La, Sun rejected the contention that the PRC was isolating itself. To the contrary, many other countries supported China’s position on the SCS. Earlier efforts to establish this, however, have been less than completely successful. While some countries such as Kenya — notably not a member of the region and therefore, according to Sun’s schema, not qualified to comment — several of the countries said to be in support did not issue statements affirming such a stance. Cambodia — normally considered to faithfully follow Beijing’s wishes — explicitly said it had not done so, with Fiji stating bluntly that China had either misunderstood or misrepresented Suva’s position.  In a seeming non sequitur from the scenario of a militarized, disharmonious region, Sun stated that the overall situation in the South China Sea remained stable and that freedom of navigation has not been affected by the disputes, averring that the Southeast Asian states and China were perfectly capable of solving their differences through peaceful means without outside powers. “Any countries not directly concerned are not allowed to sabotage our path of peace for their selfish gains.”
Other countries not directly concerned, however, did claim standing in regional issues. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian argued that the South China Sea dispute concerned not only Europe but the rest of the world as well since, if the laws of the sea were not respected in this region, they would also be challenged in the Arctic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. He proposed that European navies coordinate patrols in Asian waters to reinforce a rules-based maritime order. The French navy had already been deployed to the South China Sea three times in the year, and would be a continued presence. And Czech Army General Petr Pavel, who chairs the North American Treaty Organization’s military affairs committee, stated that Beijing risked fueling regional instability by unilaterally flouting international norms in dispute resolution.
Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan stated his country’s conviction that “we have more than a generalized stake in the region’s prosperity and stability, but specific security interests that are defined by our growing economic ties with a region that will be the key driver of global growth.” Sajjan left no doubt that Canada planned a more robust presence in the area.
Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar also claimed a role for his country in the area. India, by virtue of its location at the center of the Asian landmass astride the Indian Ocean, understood the term Asia in the sense of “its fullest geography ranging from the Suez to the shores of the Pacific.” More than half of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea. Hence, as a coastal state, Asia was a focus of India’s Act East policy in all its dimensions: cultural, economic, and security. Aggressive behavior or actions “by any one of us” would cause all to suffer, whether big states or small. Japanese defense minister Nakatani Gen also asserted his nation’s stake in the region. declaring that no country could be an outsider as “large-scale and rapid land reclamation, building of outposts, and utilization of them for military purposes” took place in the South China Sea. Japan, he pledged, would help Southeast Asian nations build their security capabilities to deal with “unilateral, dangerous, and coercive actions” in the area.
The representative of Vietnam, definitely a regional state as well as a claimant to several of the disputed islands, described the Chinese delegation’s distribution of leaflets making false claims to what his country regards as the East Vietnam Sea “prove if anything that China is running out of arguments to defend its so-called sovereignty over the waterways.” Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh warned that the PRC’s unilateralism and coercion would, if not checked, “lead to armed crisis.” 
While sentiment against the Chinese actions is unmistakable, the question remains what difference it will make. There is no unity within the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on how to deal with Chinese expansionism. Not all Southeast Asian states have claims to the disputed territories being absorbed by China. Moreover, all count the PRC as an important trading partner, albeit to varying degrees, and fear the consequences of angering it by taking a strong stand against China’s actions. The ITLOS’s rulings are not self-enforcing.
Carter’s assurances notwithstanding, even claimant states are not certain about whether and to what extent they can count on American backing in case of confrontation. There is additional uncertainty about the policies of the new president who is to be elected in November 2016. And left-wing voices in ASEAN argue that their countries must resist being drawn into a confrontation between China and the United States. For such individuals, the real issue is the struggle for primacy between two great powers, with control of the sea and the territories therein being simply a manifestation of a larger contest. In a memorable metaphor by Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein declared that whatever happens between major powers must not “leave us on the beach when the tide goes out.” And incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte aroused a storm of internal criticism when he indicated that he might depart from claimant states’ desire for multilateral negotiations with Beijing by agreeing to bilateral talks.
Clearly, no U.S. president should take actions that would reinforce the view that America is engaged in a great power primacy contest and should emphasize the shared stake of all countries in the region to check aggression. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated the need for multilateralism while seeking to draw the larger powers of the area — India, Japan, and Australia — into a loose quadrilateral alliance with itself. This has not been easy: changes in the ruling parties of democratically elected states inevitably result in policy changes, and the Australian government’s decision to choose a not yet built French submarine concept over an operational Japanese design is considered an additional setback. Trying to find the Goldilocks solution of a policy that is neither so hard line as to elicit accusations of a reckless cowboy mentality nor so soft that allies doubt America’s commitment will be a major challenge for the next administration.