The International Institute for Strategic Studies' Shangri-La Dialogue has wrapped up its meeting in Singapore. The context for this year's summit was not propitious: Russia's bloody invasion of Ukraine grinds on, while Chinese President Xi Jinping continues his uncompromising approach to global affairs.
If one thing was obvious during the two days of defence diplomacy, it is that the Sino-US competition is far from being managed effectively. A robust bilateral dialogue is almost non-existent at the ministerial level, with military-to-military contact even more limited. Efforts by US President Joe Biden's administration to restart talks fizzled earlier this year after a Chinese spy balloon was shot down in US airspace.
As the US warns of an alarming increase in ominous intercepts from the Chinese military amid escalating tensions over Taiwan, US partners want China to talk. In delivering this year's Shangri-La keynote, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described more dialogue as the "first and most fundamental" guardrail on US-China relations.
In his speech, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also emphasised bilateral dialogue, especially between military leaders. The right time to talk, he said, was "anytime and every time". Dialogue is not a reward, but a necessity, he continued -- perhaps with China and US hawks in mind -- adding that a "cordial handshake over dinner" is "no substitute for a substantive engagement".
Despite this appeal, Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu rebuffed Mr Austin's request to meet. When asked about the need for guardrails and confidence-building measures, including to manage confrontations at sea or in the air, Mr Li said the answer was not military-to-military dialogue; rather, the West should "mind its own business" and stay out of the waters and airspace near China.
The US and its partners, Mr Li argued, were using freedom of navigation as a pretext for "hegemony". Making it clear that China has no interest in examining its own conduct in the Indo-Pacific, Mr Li repeated the now-familiar lines that his country would never bully or coerce others and has no hegemonic aspirations. The irony of such remarks was not lost on many of the delegates.
The Chinese delegates were quick to encourage Southeast Asian "autonomy" and to portray the Quad and Aukus security groupings as undermining the centrality of Asean and regional stability. Similarly, Mr Li took aim at US "exceptionalism and double standards", a charge he knew would resonate with some in the audience.
The second takeaway from the conference concerns Russia's invasion of Ukraine: while the war preoccupies the US and its close partners, Southeast Asia remains indifferent.
But in many less-developed parts of Asia, the Russian and Chinese narrative of the war has gained considerable traction. For example, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto issued a seemingly impromptu peace proposal, which called for a ceasefire "at present positions", a DMZ and UN-supervised referenda in "disputed territories".
The half-baked initiative was dead on arrival. EU official Josep Borrell, Ukraine Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and many others condemned the plan, arguing that it would result in an unjust peace. But Chinese delegates welcomed it, and some Southeast Asian attendees, who complained that calls for negotiation were automatically seen as pro-Russian, sympathised with the idea.
Equally striking, the "power of partnerships" was on full display at the conference. Leaders and ministers from the US, Europe, the UK, Japan, Australia and Canada sang from the same song sheet on both Russia and China, harmonising their calls for dialogue and deterrence. Moreover, US-led trilateral meetings were held on the sidelines, a "new Quad" meeting took place and senior defence officials from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance held discussions. India was notably absent, though, with the defence minister skipping the event yet again.
It would be a mistake, however, to equate a strong showing of alignment between the US and its Indo-Pacific and European allies at Shangri-La with the broader mood in Southeast Asia. Concluding the conference, Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen once again warned about US-China tensions, a more militarised Indo-Pacific, and the risk of conflict. Some Southeast Asian delegates quietly expressed their ambivalence about US policy toward China, along with worry about the possible return of Donald Trump after next year's US presidential election.
For all its quiet hedging, Southeast Asia continues to worry about the risk of war. But regional leaders are determined to avoid the "invidious choice" between the US and China, no matter how much their rivalry shapes the agenda and dominates discussions. ©2023 Project Syndicate
Richard Maude is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.