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Beware of China’s attempt to assume leadership of Asia-Pacific

For India, the border issue is not just a small part of bilateral military relations. It is the issue that must be resolved for a mutually stable neighbourhood.

Beware of China’s attempt to assume leadership of Asia-Pacific

In full glare: The recent Shangri-La Dialogue has highlighted to the world a facet of China’s behaviour that India has experienced for a long time. Reuters



Lt Gen Anil Ahuja (Retd)

Former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff

AMID concerns over the emergence of a ‘rules-broken’ international order, replacing the “taken for granted, insufficiently protected and barely modernised rules-based order”, the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defence summit, was held in Singapore from May 31 to June 2. This annual dialogue brings together defence ministers, senior officials and non-governmental stakeholders to discuss the most pressing challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.

The most-watched participants this year included Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who delivered the keynote address, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and the new Defence Minister of China, Admiral Dong Jun, who was appointed in December last year, two months after his predecessor, Gen Li Shangfu, was formally removed.

The challenge set forth for the participants by Sir John Chipman, Executive Chairman, International Institute of Strategic Studies — a co-organiser of the event (along with the Singapore Government) — was to find a unique way to build a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific, amid the complex realities presented by the “interplay of economic statecraft and military strategy”. Within the region, there is an ongoing major power contestation and a progressive drift towards a unipolar Asia, oblivious to the reality that power alone cannot decide the rules by which this region is governed or integrated.

Despite the backdrop of a sombre and bleak global and regional security environment, the messaging by the Chinese Defence Minister and his accompanying delegation of Generals was far from ‘reassuring’. The glaring contrast between the words and deeds of China was evidenced best by the stark difference between the ‘prepared’ text of the speech of Admiral Dong and his answers to the questions raised (though most were left unanswered). In addition, members of the Chinese delegation posed provocative questions to prominent speakers. Such coordinated aggressive behaviour, which is not usual in global security dialogues, gave the impression of a ‘pack of wolves’ being present at Shangri-La, an ironic contrast to this mythical paradise.

The most significant observation was that China seemed to have unilaterally usurped the mantle of leadership of Asia-Pacific, articulating its own concerns, guised as the voice of the region. Admiral Dong said that while different countries had different security interests and goals, China has a ‘leadership’ role. He also said: “We will not allow anyone to bring geopolitical conflicts or any war, whether hot or cold, to our region.” The efforts to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific and create an uncontested, unipolar, Sino-centric Asia and disregard for the centrality of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) were more than evident.

The harshest words, though, were reserved for Taiwan, termed the “core of China’s core interests”. Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te, who took over in May, is viewed by China as a ‘separatist’. Referring to his statements as a ‘betrayal of China and their ancestors’, Admiral Dong warned: “They will be nailed to the pillar of shame in history.” Reiterating confidence in the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities to deter Taiwan independence, he added, “Anyone who dares to separate Taiwan from China will only end up in self-destruction.” The threat of use of force for the capture of Taiwan was not even attempted to be disguised.

The Dragon’s belligerent actions in the South China Sea, particularly against the Philippines, were sought to be justified by dubbing all facts, other than the Chinese ‘facts’, as ‘a fabricated and false narrative’. In a severe criticism of the July 2016 award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favour of the Philippines, Admiral Dong accused the country of enforcing the ‘illegal arbitration award’. He described it as “blackmailing others (China) under the guise of international law”. Claiming Beijing’s great restraint in the face of infringements and provocations, he warned that it would backfire.

The questions fielded by Admiral Dong’s delegation members seemed an extension of the predetermined script. A Major General confronted President Marcos, stating that the Philippines’ behaviour in recent times risks ruining the long-earned, long-lasting regional peace and that the Philippines seems to be disregarding the other party’s (China’s) comfort level. Likewise, a Senior Colonel asked the US Secretary of Defence, “Is the US planning to build a NATO-like alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region?” adding, “The east border expansion of NATO has led to the Ukraine crisis. What implications do you think the strengthening of the US alliance system in Asia-Pacific will have on the region’s security and stability?”

Other references to China’s disruptive behaviour included Zelenskyy’s assertions that Beijing was attempting to sabotage the global peace summit in Switzerland by pressurising countries not to attend. Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles raised concerns over China’s strategic partnership with Russia, its escalatory behaviour in Asian waters and airspace, incursions against Taiwan, activities against the Philippines in their territorial waters and interference with Australian navy operations in Korea. Through these illustrations, he raised doubts about the role that China intends to play as a global actor.

The unusually belligerent behaviour of the Chinese delegation at the Shangri-La Dialogue does raise concerns over the Dragon’s role in the Indo-Pacific, particularly for its neighbours. There are indicators that India must take note of: China’s usurping of the leadership role in Asia and attempts to coerce the nations seeking alternatives; an undisguised attempt to create a Sino-centric unipolar Asia and undermining the centrality of ASEAN; the propensity to create fabricated historical narratives and discredit established international institutions like the Permanent Court of Arbitration (established in 1899); and the willingness to use the military for furthering its perceived national interests.

The recent Shangri-La Dialogue has highlighted to the world a facet of China’s behaviour that India has experienced for a long time. While India maintains the desire to improve its relations with China, the latter must remain mindful of Indian interests and aspirations. For India, the border issue is not just a small part of bilateral military relations, as the Chinese would have us believe. It is the issue that must be resolved for a mutually stable neighbourhood and to ensure that ‘Galwans’ and ‘Yangtses’ do not occur again. 

#China


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