BARBS and heated exchanges over territorial disputes and Japan’s desire for a greater regional security role dominated this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
But the real elephant in the room is the question of how best to accommodate a rising China.
For instance, how much influence should or could the United States, the dominant military power in the Asia Pacific, share with China?
How much of the existing rules of the road have to be adjusted for Beijing? And what new rules would it like to introduce?
There are no easy answers. Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told delegates at the forum’s closing session last Sunday that it was an issue the region was still “grappling with”.
Prof Nick Bisley, of Australia’s La Trobe University, added: “For a country like China, you can’t just present it with a black or white option of (accepting or rejecting the status quo).
“There needs to be some serious discussion among the US and its allies about adjustment, but we haven’t seen any sign of that at the Shangri-La Dialogue.”
But the dialogue itself might be a good place to start thinking about some of the “adjustments” that could be made.
For a start, China could be given an earlier speaking slot at the annual confab for defence ministers and top generals from the region and beyond.
The current arrangement is one where the top representative from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) speaks only on the last day of the three-day event.
The choicest speaking slot – outside of the keynote address reserved for international leaders on the opening night – is traditionally given to the US defence chief at the so-called first plenary session.
Should that choice slot be rotated instead? Prof Xia Liping of Shanghai’s Tongji University thinks so.
“The US can go first this time, but let other countries have the chance next time. You can’t always be dominant,” he added.
But if Beijing wants to be better accommodated, it would also have to do a better job of articulating its intentions. For instance, the blistering critique of the US and Japan by the PLA’s Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong generated plenty of heat but shed little light on what Beijing is concerned about, beyond public criticism.
He also cast China as a victim of sorts, insisting Beijing “has never taken the first step to provoke troubles, (and) has only been forced to respond to the provocative actions by other parties”.
The Philippines and Vietnam, which are locked in fierce territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, certainly do not see things that way.
There is one way to address these and other questions in one fell swoop next year. Chinese President Xi Jinping should accept an invitation to be the keynote speaker for next year’s dialogue. — The Straits Times