Shangri-La Dialogue

China’s strident words on South China Sea sovereignty are anything but reassuring to a wary region

Bonnie Glaser says the Shangri-La Dialogue, where nations queued up to express their concerns over Beijing’s actions, was another missed opportunity to shore up relations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 1:32pm

In what was perhaps the only extemporaneous remark made by China’s PLA representative at the Shangri-La Dialogue this past weekend, Admiral Sun Jianguo (孫建國) said that his bilateral meetings with foreign counterparts – 17 in all – were “warmer and friendlier” than those he held last year. Sun claimed to have received fewer questions during these meetings on the South China Sea. He insisted that trust had increased since the last dialogue. If Beijing really believes its behaviour over the past year has led to greater confidence that China’s rise will be peaceful and will not come at the expense of other nations, then China and its leaders are truly autistic.

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A succession of defence leaders and delegates at the dialogue voiced concern about China’s uncertain intentions, its island building and military activity in the South China Sea, and its rejection of the pending ruling by the UN arbitration case filed by the Philippines. One after another, they called for a rules-based international order and for all countries to abide by prevailing international norms and laws.

Defence ministers from the US, India, Malaysia, Japan, Britain, France and Canada raised pointed concerns about China in their remarks. “The uncertainty of China future’s trajectory is arguably the main driving concern about possible military competition now and in the future,” said Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian cautioned that “if the law of the sea is not respected today in the China seas [sic], it will be threatened tomorrow in the Arctic, the Mediterranean or elsewhere.” In a thinly veiled reference to China, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar warned the forum that the “shared prosperities and the enviable rate of growth” that the Indo-Pacific region has enjoyed “over past decades will be put at risk by aggressive behaviour or actions by any one of us.” Chung Min Lee, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told Sun in the Q&A session that “many Asian countries don’t trust China” because of its “aggressive” posture in the region.

It is undeniable that China’s uncompromising stance on sovereignty and territorial issues, combined with a dismissive attitude towards international law, aggressive interference with foreign fishing vessels, extensive land reclamation on tiny reefs, and rapidly growing coast guard and navy have created enormous anxiety in the region and driven many countries inside and outside Southeast Asia closer to the US. This is what Secretary of Defence Ash Carter meant when he charged that China is erecting a Great Wall of isolation.

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The remarks by Sun, deputy chief of the People Liberation Army’s joint staff department, contained nothing reassuring. He staunchly defended China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, and attempted to shift the blame for rising tensions there onto the US and the Philippines. Absent was any mention of President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) pledge – made publicly in Washington last September – to not militarise the Spratlys. Sun didn’t even attempt to soothe anxiety by reiterating Chinese intentions to use the reefs in the disputed waters primarily for the provision of public goods, such as search and rescue. His call for countries to “address the reasonable concerns of others while pursuing their own interests” rang hollow. While other defence representatives tabled concrete proposals to promote cooperation, Sun failed to offer anything hopeful other than a vague assertion that China has no hegemonic ambitions and that Xi’s China Dream is consistent with the dreams of other countries in the region. His insistence that China has been a victim of aggression and invasion by its neighbours in the South China Sea over the past decades probably didn’t win any sympathy.

China’s dialogue delegation better prepared and more at ease than last year

Sun delivered his speech in a booming, shrill tone that seemed designed to intimidate the audience while assuring listeners in China that the PLA would defend Chinese national interests. For the second year in a row, he did not respond directly to any questions put to him, opting to read only prepared remarks. Once again, Sun’s performance left the impression that China could not care less about others’ concerns and will stay the course in the South China Sea regardless.

China missed another opportunity to listen to the region, assuage concerns about Chinese intentions, and signal willingness to find common ground to advance security and stability in the region.

Bonnie S. Glaser is director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC