The Asia-Pacific’s major defence summit is again set to be dominated by the United States and China duking it out over who is most fit to lead the world order. But as Sam Sachdeva reports, smaller states – New Zealand included – will have a chance to press their own cases for significance.

In recent weeks, the most heated talk of war between the United States and China has focused on the rather unsexy battlefield of trade.

But as the two nations join those at this weekend’s Shangri-La Summit in Singapore – one of the premier meetings for defence ministers and military minds in the Asia-Pacific – could that hostility move from soybeans and rare earths to something more chilling?

Perhaps the most significant speech at Shangri-La will come from the acting US secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan, who is set to unveil the American vision for what it refers to as the “Indo-Pacific”.

The phrase has been thrown around increasingly on the world stage by Donald Trump’s administration, seemingly in a bid to undercut China’s role in the region, but there has precious little detail on what exactly it means for the region – other than the obvious emphasis on India.

David Capie, the director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies, expects Shanahan to fill in some of the gaps, providing more information about the US balance of forces between the Indo-Pacific and other parts of the world and any plans to increase the tempo of its operations in the latter.

Defence Minister Ron Mark says there is no ignoring India’s importance, but it is still unclear what the US conception of an “Indo-Pacific” means for New Zealand. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Capie says US officials have been consistent in their denials that the Indo-Pacific vision is about containment of China, but are now much more explicit about moving towards “a competitive relationship and even an adversarial relationship” with the Asian superpower.

New Zealand has so far been reluctant to buy into this new framing, instead sticking tightly to the traditional Asia-Pacific conception, and that appears unlikely to change – at least in the short term.

“One cannot ignore the emergence and importance, the significance of India any longer, but I’m not clear right now as to exactly how that engagement fits with us or affects us,” Defence Minister Ron Mark says.

The main question may not be about the Pacific’s interests in India, he adds, but the other way around: “What role does India see itself playing when it comes to peace and stability within the region and globally?”

China prepares to push back

The vision of Shanahan and the US seems set to face a strong rebuttal from China.

General Wei Fenghe will become the first Chinese defence minister to attend Shangri-La since 2011, speaking the day after Shanahan on his country’s role in international security cooperation.

Capie sees Wei’s attendance as a more concerted effort from China to shape the narrative around the event, with the country having in the past refrained from sending its top brass to what some saw as a “China-bashing forum”.

“The Chinese will [now] more consistently push back where they feel that their core interests have been challenged by the US and others.

“If past forums are anything to go by, usually sparks fly and there’s some pretty frank talk.”

General Wei Fenghe will become the first China defence minister to visit the Shangri-La Dialogue since 2011. Photo: Getty Images. 

Those sparks may fly in relation to the South China Sea, with the US increasing its freedom of navigation exercises around the disputed parts of reclaimed land where China has built up military installations.

The US military’s top general has accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of breaking a promise not to militarise the area, while Australian military helicopter pilots have complained of having lasers shone at them while carrying out flyovers in the South China Sea.

Capie downplays suggestions of any deliberate move towards war, saying it is an inadvertent accident which poses the greatest risk.

For his part, Mark holds to the traditional New Zealand line: “We have made it clear that we expect all nations to comply with the international rules of the sea when it comes to freedom of passage … both sea lanes and air routes are fundamental to New Zealand’s prosperity.”

Spotlight on the South Pacific 

But it is not just the South China Sea where the US and China are battling for influence.

Unusually, the South Pacific is the subject of a standalone session at Shangri-La: the topic up for discussion, “Strategic interests and competition in the South Pacific”, further reinforces the sense of what Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has referred to as the return of “Great Power competition”.

But Capie welcomes the session, which will include Pacific Islands Forum secretary general Dame Meg Taylor, as a chance to branch out beyond the back and forth between military heavyweights.

“I think it’s great that a forum that’s often dominated by big countries, by the clash of big interests, is actually also going to have the chance to hear from some small countries who can give their perspective on that strategic competition but also talk about what are the most important security issues from their point of view.”

Those issues are almost certain to include climate change, an area where Mark has sought to push New Zealand ahead of the pack through an NZDF report describing it as “one of the greatest security challenges facing the country”.

The South Pacific will be the subject of a specific session at Shangri-La – and the issue of climate change is almost certain to feature. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

It is in pushing the Pacific’s interests on climate change, as well as more generally, where the minister seems to see his country’s greatest influence as lying.

“New Zealand plays a very important role in this space – while major actors may have their specific goals and strategic objectives, New Zealand actually has to have very good relations with everybody in the Pacific.”

Mark may find a friend in Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has indicated his keynote address opening Shangri-La on Friday night will focus on the role of small states in boosting the multilateral order.

That seems in part a bid to maintain the value placed on “ASEAN centrality”, as well to avoid being forced into a choice between siding with the US or China.

It’s a dilemma which New Zealand can empathise with; the tenor of the talks at Shangri-La may give us some idea of whether that risk moves from theoretical to unavoidable.

* Sam Sachdeva is travelling to Singapore to cover the Shangri-La Dialogue courtesy of a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Follow Newsroom for all the major developments from the defence summit.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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