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A nation must think before it acts.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been very busy of late. At the end of May, he was in Honolulu to formally rename the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), in overt recognition of the interconnectedness of the two oceans—and the covert recognition of the People’s Republic of China’s expansionist activities in both. Beijing, suspicious of what this means for the PRC, is wary. Mattis also presided over the retirement ceremony for PACOM commander Admiral Harry Harris, who has been nominated to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Chinese media have been consistently critical of Harris, partly because of his tough words about Chinese expansionism and partly because they believe his half-Japanese ancestry will prejudice him against the PRC.
From Honolulu, Mattis flew to Singapore to attend the annual gathering known as the Shangri La Dialogue. Taking its name from the hotel it is held in rather than from the mythical Himalayan utopia described in James Hilton’s 1933 best seller Lost Horizon, the meeting is hosted by London’s prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and is attended by high level ministers from NATO and Indo-Pacific states as well as Qatar. Although speeches are typically polite, they often are delivered in code that hints at underlying anxieties and discontents. Smaller gatherings that take place on the sidelines are often better indicators of these concerns, though their actual content, as distinct from pleasantries about cooperation for the peace and prosperity of all, is not always made public.
According to the IISS’s website, this year’s attendees included a larger number of ministers—forty, most of them defense ministers, representing fifty countries—than ever before. By contrast, there had been only twelve at the first meeting of the Shangri La Dialogue in 2002. Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe was not, however, among the forty. Continuing a pattern that began several years ago, the Chinese were represented by comparatively low-ranking figures, with a lieutenant general, He Lei, a vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, leading the 2018 delegation. Chinese media characterized the members’ role as participating in an “academic exchange” on theories rather than in a policy debate and described their presence as designed to “refute incorrect views.”
To many observers, this downgrading of representation reinforced their conviction that Chinese President Xi Jinping was moving the PRC away from participation in the international world order and toward establishing an alternate world order with itself as the center. Evidence was not lacking: China has refused to accept the ruling of the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against China’s claim to a 9-dash line enclosing an estimated eighty percent of the South China Sea; created artificial islands within that zone and militarized them; established a military base in Djibouti; put pressure both on the Sino-Indian land border and in the Indian Ocean; taken various measures to reduce Taiwan’s international presence; and continued to harass Japan in the vicinity of the East China Sea areas disputed between the two. China’s One Belt One Road project, also sometimes referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), envisions setting up an international trading system centered on Beijing. While some analysts see the sum total of these activities as no more than a rising power assuming a more responsible role within the system, others see it as a return to a fancifully re-imagined version of the ancient tribute system in which China considered itself the central kingdom: the hub of civilization and arbiter of the world order.
At Shangri La, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country has had tense relations with the PRC of late, delivered the keynote speech. His address, the first ever for an Indian prime minister at the gathering was placatory—to a degree. Modi stressed that rivalries would hold back the region and that although competition was normal, contests must not turn into conflict: differences must not be allowed to become disputes. The oceans carry 90 percent of India’s trade and energy sources and must be kept open for not only his country, but all others. His vision for a SAGAR—the word means “ocean” in Hindi—Security and Growth for All in the Region, first laid out for the Indian Ocean area in 2015, could be made applicable to the “east” in general.
Undoubtedly in deference to China, Modi did not mention the Quad—the informal arrangement among India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. to resist Beijing’s expansionism. However, he used the term “Indo-Pacific” ten times. And added that the role of the United States—whom China has several times pointedly reminded other countries is not an Asian state—is critical. Modi noted that India and the United States share a vision of an open, stable, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, doubtless in the expectation that his audience would notice that the Chinese government decidedly did not share that vision, and added that there must be a common rules-based order based on the consent of all. All nations must have an equal voice, irrespective of size and strength. Again, this phrase is a code, referencing a Chinese foreign minister’s 2010 statement to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that China is a big country and they are not, meaning that they must get used to it.
Mattis’ speech followed and was more direct: American interests inextricably were intertwined with the Indo-Pacific, and the U.S. was in the region to stay. It did not practice “predatory economics,” would resist any efforts to unilaterally alter the status quo and would insist that any resolution of differences be solved through uncoerced agreement by all parties involved. The U.S. would continue to meet its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.
Moving on to the South China Sea (SCS), Mattis described the PRC’s behavior as in stark contrast to the openness promoted by U.S. strategy and as calling into question China’s broader goals. Enumerating the assets included in the PRC’s militarization of artificial islands in the SCS as anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and, most recently, landing a bomber on Woody Island, the secretary characterized them as tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion. The PRC’s militarization of the Spratly Islands was, moreover, in direct contradiction to Xi Jinping’s public assurances to the Obama administration in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2015. Since these were clear indications of behavior inconsistent with the commitment to transparency and cooperation that are the fundamental principles of the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises, the U.S. had made the decision to disinvite the Chinese navy from participation in the 2018 iteration thereof. In obvious but unspoken contrast to China, Mattis continued that the U.S. offers strategic partnerships, not strategic dependence, did not “dream”—surely an allusion to Xi Jinping’s “China dream”—of domination, and would work together with partners to provide peace, prosperity, and security for all. The end goal was a “constellation of nations, each with its own bright star, satellites to none.”
The Chinese delegation listened with angry faces. State-owned CGTV described them as immediately “lashing out” against Mattis’ “irresponsible remarks.” The South China Sea was clearly within China’s territorial sovereignty as defined by international law, and to say otherwise constituted interference in China’s internal affairs. The SCS had not been an issue until the U.S. made it one to “spearhead” China—neglecting to mention the assertive Chinese behavior that had brought the American declarations on the need for freedom of navigation in the area. According to the PRC media, however, U.S. behavior was akin to “a robber playing a cop.” At a later press conference, delegation head He Lei stressed that the area was China’s sacred territory and that Taiwan was an inalienable part of China, a “bottom line that could not be touched or challenged.”
Other Chinese media commentaries focused on Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie’s reply to a question about whether the U.S. had the ability to “blow apart” the artificial islands in the SCS. Although the general’s response was artfully evasive, saying only that the U.S. military had a lot of experience taking down small islands in the Western Pacific—a reference to its “island-hopping” campaign against Japan during World War II—and that it was a core competence of the force, Beijing’s Global Times pointed out that destroying “a Chinese island” would be an act of war. The PLA, it added, also had core competence.
The remainder of the contributions on the SCS issue were far more subdued, concentrating on abstract principles such as the importance of international law and the need for dialogue by the Australian and Vietnamese defense ministers, respectively. The nadir was a rambling, cliché-ridden, and embarrassingly poorly translated address by a recently retired Indonesian defense minister. Delegates heaped much praise on the ten-member ASEAN as a model of cooperation and integration for medium and small nations, with no mention of its failure to solve any of the major issues. ASEAN has been trying for a decade to get China to commit to a Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea, achieving little more than a somewhat vague commitment to discuss the issue that included no time frame for doing so.
Beijing repeatedly has stressed its preference for dealing with issues bilaterally since its large size relative to that of any individual Southeast Asian state provides the PRC with an obvious advantage. Hence, despite repeated ASEAN pronouncements that seem to envision a COC as the Holy Grail solution to tensions, observers believe that any language that Beijing would agree to would be so ambiguous as to be useless and that the PRC could not be expected to abide by it in any case. As a case in point of the latter, in 2014, the Chinese government, along with 20 other nations, did sign a long-sought Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) aimed at reducing tensions in the East and South China seas. However, a senior Chinese naval officer involved in the negotiations said immediately that the PRC would not necessarily observe the agreement. “How we arrange things, how we use this thing, that’s something we need to talk about. We’re just talking about the rules. Whether or where or when these rules will apply –it [CUES] leaves that open, leaves it to bilateral [talks].” Note the insistence on bilateral solutions, which was precisely what CUES was designed to avoid. Moreover, although China long ago signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it rejected UNCLOS provisions for dispute resolution, citing the primacy of its historic rights and domestic laws. The government also has persisted in delineating the PRC’s territories using straight baselines, an explicit violation of the UNCLOS stipulation that only archipelagic states—which, as a continental state, China is not—are entitled to do so. Given these precedents and ongoing differences of opinion on what constitutes territorial waters in the area, there is little reason for optimism.
Consonant with their particular interests, the Japanese and South Korean ministers focused on the need for a solution to North Korea’s belligerent behavior. These will await the deliberations of another summit, also to be held in Singapore later in June. European and Middle Eastern representatives were likewise focused on the issue closest to their interests: terrorism. Since the meeting included no supporters of terrorism, these were decidedly non-controversial.
The dialogue closed amid much self-congratulation: the bar had been raised for regional security cooperation and stability. But had it? Abstract talk about the need for a rules-based international order means little when there are clear differences about what that order should look like: a constellation of states or a bright star surrounded by satellites? Talk about the equality of nations is similarly meaningless when the weak remain reluctant, however understandably, to challenge the strong. As for the strong, the United States and China clearly set forth their respective positions, which had however, been clear long before the meeting. In the end, one must wonder how much was accomplished.