Sunday, July 14, 2024

Ukraine & Taiwan Dominate The Shangri-La Dialogue

By Vijay Grover

Vijay Grover
Vijay Grover, Editor IA&D

IA&D Editor Vijay Grover brings this exclusive report from Singapore on the Shangri-La dialogue, which saw 40 governments, and over 575 delegates discuss security concerns of the world.

The 21st Shangri-la dialogue, which concluded in Singapore on 12th June, ended up re-visiting the issues that have been dogging the world for several years now. While a hardened stance by the US on the Ukraine issue and by China on Taiwan sent a strong message to the world, Southeast Asian nations took “some comfort” from the first-ever in-person meeting between the incumbent US and China defence ministers on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

The opening day talks between China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin had been highly anticipated in the region, amid anxiety from small nations about being caught in the middle of growing antagonism between the superpowers.

The hour-long talks on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue were the first face-to-face meeting, and a Chinese release described it as “candid and constructive”. However, the keynote speeches of both defence ministers at the summit, which accused the other side of jeopardising peace in Asia, were a damper on optimism. 

“The very fact that both defence ministers met, it did give some comfort,” Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told a press conference and added, “I think that was reassuring and as for the way forward, ASEAN nations will take comfort that both have said there is no need to choose sides.” 

The worry for the smaller countries, especially in the Asian region, is the stark reality of growing strategic competition between the two superpowers. This is creating problems of its own as Joe Biden’s team now dubs its China strategy ‘competition with guardrails’ — meaning an approach where Washington will compete intensively with Beijing while avoiding the risk of a sharp and damaging deterioration in the security sphere. 

Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, published in February, was blunt about the threat China poses to US interests. James Crabtree, Executive Director, IISS Asia, noted, “The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power”. 

Biden now faces complex choices about where to compete with China. The US recognises that it cannot compete alone, hence its focus on allies and partners, as embodied in arrangements like AUKUS and the Quad. This has given the US some assurance as it expects that India, Japan, and Australia will have a strong influence on Asian countries. Chinese military officials were quick to defend their stance. They hit back at US’ attempts to draw parallels between cross-strait tensions and the war in Ukraine, describing the comparison as very aggressive.

The Chinese Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo said that the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s suggestion that Europe and the Indo-Pacific shared security concerns amid the Ukraine war was a clear attempt to target China. “Austin spent a long time talking about China’s ties with neighbouring countries,” said Zhao from China’s Academy of Military Sciences, adding, “To be honest, I think it’s a little provocative.”

The Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe accused the United States of being a “bully” and “hijacking” countries around the region during a combative speech in which he said his country would “fight to the very end” to stop Taiwanese independence.

“Taiwan is first and foremost China’s Taiwan,” Wei told the Shangri-La Dialogue, adding that China would “not hesitate” to crush any attempt by the self-governed island to “secede.”

America responded strongly as Austin told the security forum that Washington was not seeking a new cold war or to establish an Asian NATO, but it would help Asian nations push back against what he said were China’s coercive moves.

Defence experts attending the Shangri-La dialogue were unanimously in agreement that a lesson should be learned in the Indo-Pacific region from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Austin said had undercut international order rooted in rules and respect.

“Now our friends and partners also know that, and they understand that smaller countries have a right to peacefully resolve disputes with their larger neighbours,” Austin said.

The US observed that Beijing had steadily increased its “provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan,” which Beijing sees as a breakaway province that can be taken back by force. Taiwan was also mentioned for the first time in a separate defence ministers’ meeting between Austin and his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is a “Track One” inter-governmental security conference held annually in Singapore since 2002 by an independent think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The dialogue is commonly attended by defence ministers, permanent heads of ministries and military chiefs of mostly Asia-Pacific states. In 2018, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi underscored the importance of the Indian Ocean to India, noting that 90 percent of India’s trade and energy passes through it. He specifically delineated the boundaries of the Indo-Pacific as seen through Indian eyes. He underscored the importance of freedom of navigation and connectivity—and decried protectionism. However, this time, the Indian participation was a very low-key affair with no ministerial representation. 

It was left to Vice Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta to lead the Indian delegation. However, India was unable to effectively counter the Chinese allegations of intrusion by Indian soldiers being the cause of friction between China and India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since last year. The Chinese side further went on to allege heavy Indian weaponisation by India on the Lac for the prolonging status quo. However, there was some hope in the statement by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, who said, “Maintaining good relations is in the interest of both India and China, and we have held 15 rounds of military talks with India for Peace.” 

The summit, which serves to cultivate a sense of community among the most important policymakers in the defence and security community in the region this year, played a key role in raking up the Ukrainian issue, which may be perceived as Ukraine, was losing global support. 

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s virtual address to the IISS reiterated his calls to tighten sanctions on Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. Zelensky, who addressed world leaders and senior defence officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore from an undisclosed location in Kyiv, said the Russian army had “killed thousands of our people and deported thousands more to Russian territory”.

Speaking to the 575 delegates from 40 countries at Asia’s top security summit, “I am grateful for your support … but this support is not only for Ukraine, but for you as well,” said Zelenskyy, who wore a black t-shirt with the words NFT designed by a Singaporean teenager. “It is on the battlefields of Ukraine that the future rules of this world are being decided along with the boundaries of the possible.”

Zelensky also invoked Singapore’s founding Prime Minister in his virtual address, which lasted a little over 10 minutes “If there had been no international law and the big fish ate a small fish and a small fish ate shrimps… we would not have existed. These are wise words of Lee Kuan Yew, the leader who was perspicacious enough to see the clear reasons of many things and resources, and who knew exactly what is of value,” he said, referring to a 1966 speech by Singapore’s then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Lee had quoted a Chinese proverb, “Big fish eat small fish; small fish eat shrimps”, but highlighted that some shrimp also have poisonous stings.

The Ukraine appeal to the world and sanctions against Russia have not deterred the Russians from slowing down the war, which has left thousands dead. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s call on the international community to join efforts in response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine and the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine rules-based international order brought renewed attention to the war.

Austin stressed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have ramifications on global security, and therefore the international community must stay tightly engaged to support Ukraine and maintain a rules-based international order. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all. This is what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbours,” he said.

Interestingly the low-key Indian presence this time was an opportunity for raised eyebrows. In spite of the Indian Defence minister’s presence in the region until a day before the Shangri-la dialogue started, he chose to stay away from it. The Indian Defence Minister was in Vietnam to mark India’s help to Vietnam in building an IT laboratory at the Air force Officers training school in Nha Trang, Vietnam, apart from giving a defence line of credit to build 12 High-speed guard boats for the Vietnam border.

Vijay Grover is the Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence 

Featured image via U.S. Department of Defense/Singapore Ministry of Defence

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