Punches thrown at Shangri-La Dialogue


The hottest topic at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security conference hosted in Singapore from 3-5 June, was China’s actions in the South China Sea.

In the red corner was China’s Adm Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department under the Central Military Commission. In the blue corner was US heavyweight Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Punches, naturally all civilised and cloaked in diplomatic speak, were quickly thrown. Sun launched his flurry of blows by saying, ‘One should abandon the outdated zero-sum mentality, replace confrontation or monopoly with win-win cooperation, and address the reasonable concerns of others while pursuing one’s own interests, respect the security needs of others while safeguarding one’s own security, and join hands in promoting peace and stability in the region.’


It’s interesting that phrases like ‘replace confrontation’ and ‘address the reasonable concerns of others’ are the very things many others accuse Beijing of not doing itself.

Referring to the pending decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague regarding a case brought by the Philippines against China’s maritime claims, the admiral unequivocally jabbed, ‘China will not bear with the arbitration award, nor will it allow any infringement of its sovereignty and security interests, or stay indifferent to the irresponsible behaviour of some countries in and around the South China Sea.’

Ouch! What happened to avoiding an ‘outdated zero-sum mentality’?

IMG_6189Intended as a knockout blow, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) representative insisted, ‘China is doing the construction activities in its own territories. They’re mainly for civilian uses. They have nothing to do with changing the status quo, and nobody has the right to point fingers at China. Of course, according to the level of threat, we have to have some military defence construction.

The whole point is that many nations dispute that these are Chinese territories. Its South China Sea facilities are plainly for far more than civilian duties, and they certainly do change the status quo.

A stream of enraged countries is expressing concern over Chinese actions: USA, India, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, France and the United Kingdom, for example.

9N5A9178One attendee at the ring in Singapore’s distinguished hotel, Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tweeted that ‘China seems singularly unable to put itself in the shoes of any other country’.

While ‘win-win’ was the chant from the Chinese corner, for Carter it was ‘principled/principles’. He used these cognates a staggering 37 times in his speech. Carter warned that China’s actions are ‘are isolating it, at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation’.

IMG_9094 (2)

China did not remain on the back foot, as Sun pointed an accusatory boxing glove at the US. ‘We have also noticed that some countries employ the international law only when it is convenient, and ignore it when it is not. On the one hand they implement the so-called freedom of navigation programme by openly showing military muscles in the South China Sea. On the other hand, they support allies confronting China, forcing China to accept and honour the arbitration award. China firmly opposes such behaviour.’
Significantly, the US conducts freedom of navigation operations all around the world. Last year it did so in the waters of 13 countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of which are South China Sea claimants. Yet no other country has got as hot under the collar as China.

In Muhammad Ali-esque tone, Sun warned the US, ‘We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble.’

US Senator John McCain was also in Singapore, and he pulled no punches. He warned, ‘Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China is manoeuvring toward a policy of intimidation and coercion – harassing fisherman from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia; using trade as a weapon in disputes with its neighbours; using cyber to steal intellectual property from foreign businesses to benefit its own industries; conducting dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law; and in the South China Sea, shattering the commitments it made to its neighbours in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.’

Towards the end of the contest, Sun attempted to tug the audience’s heartstrings: ‘All of us believe that the South China Sea has been Chinese territory since ancient times. What is happening now in the South China Sea hurts the heart of every Chinese.’


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