Despite some positive signs in the US-China relationship, a sense of foreboding at the Shangri-La Dialogue was hard to shake as nations girded themselves for conflict, Sam Sachdeva writes

It is perhaps an unavoidable part of attending a security-centred summit that one is likely to hear more bad news than good.

But even with that in mind, the tone of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was not so much glass half empty as that of a vessel placed precariously close to the edge of a table, one small slip away from smashing to pieces. 

Defence ministers and military officials spoke of a world beset with challenges to the rules-based order, facing threats from rogue nations and the changing climate.

There was, as Defence Minister Peeni Henare told Newsroom, “an underlying tension” in the air throughout proceedings.

Looming over everything was Ukraine – quite literally in the case of Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky, who beamed onto the big screen from “an undisclosed location in Kyiv” to deliver a special address to the crowd about Russia’s ongoing invasion.

Playing shrewdly to the occasion, Zelensky borrowed from the words of former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew’s as he laid out the stakes at play in Europe.

“If there was no international law and a big fish ate a small one and a small one ate a shrimp, we would not exist…

“It is on the battlefield in Ukraine that it is being decided what rules the world will live by and what will be possible and what will be impossible.”

The war might seem far away from Asia, but the potential ramifications are real enough, as Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida observed when he noted that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”.

Given that, all eyes were on the speeches of, and first meeting between, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

Wei Fenghe’s speech bore more than a few rhetorical similarities to his last address in 2019. Photo: IISS

While Wei’s speech contained its fair share of brimstone, including a promise to “resolutely crush any attempt to pursue Taiwan independence”, there seemed little truly new of substance.

Talk of fighting “at all costs” and “to the very end” echoed near-identical comments from his remarks to Shangri-La in 2019, as did his reassurances that China did not intend to seek hegemonic status.

Those looking for signs of optimism may have found it in Wei’s remarks on US-China ties, the general saying a stable relationship served not just both countries but the wider world.

“China and the US are two important major countries and China-US cooperation is vital for global peace and development.”

But that came with conditions. Namely, the US had to stop “smearing” China and interfering in its internal affairs before relations could improve, while also moving away from a competitive approach to the relationship.

“It will be a historic and strategic mistake to insist on taking China as a threat and as an adversary, or even an enemy.”

The day before, Austin had himself criticised the PRC’s “coercive and aggressive approach to its territorial claims” in Asia, citing the ongoing militarisation on artificial islands in the South China Sea, China’s expanding fishing fleet in the East China Sea, and its border tensions with India.

“Indo-Pacific countries shouldn’t face political intimidation, economic coercion, or harassment by maritime militias,” the defense secretary said, describing the region as “at the heart of American grand strategy”.

While both men’s speeches contained enough pokes at the other country, they also seemed to hold back from a full-throttle attack.

Austin often shied away from attributing particular misbehaviour to China, and Wei referred obliquely to “some big power” regarding American freedom of navigation operations in the region.

“Normally, we don’t expect to come to Southeast Asia to talk about nuclear weapons, and I’ve been to several Shangri-La dialogues and I’m quite taken aback by that.”
– Ankit Panda, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The US secretary also made a point of emphasising the country’s Taiwan policy was “unchanged and unwavering”, weeks after President Joe Biden had appeared to confirm the country would provide military defence in the event of a Chinese invasion.

It is Taiwan which seems the most likely of any issue to spark a fully-fledged conflict, given Wei’s description of reunification as “a historical trend that no one and no force can stop”.

But with Austin talking of establishing guardrails in the relationship and Wei of managing risks, there appears to be cause for hope that a worst-case scenario can be avoided.

Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Newsroom it would likely take a high-level meeting between the two nations’ leaders to cement meaningful progress.

“I think the Biden administration is deeply committed to this issue, and that’s a good thing. We need to establish guardrails with China, we need to manage risks, especially given rising tensions between the two countries and the growing possibility of conflict.”

The consequences of failure could be catastrophic, as Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein laid out in speaking about tensions in the South China Sea.

“It is not alarmist to say that it could degenerate into one of the deadliest conflicts in our time, if not history.”

Equally alarming was Kishida’s talk of the potential use of nuclear weapons more than 75 years on from the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with an unstable Russia and a building China both presenting potential threats.

“Normally, we don’t expect to come to Southeast Asia to talk about nuclear weapons, and I’ve been to several Shangri-La dialogues and I’m quite taken aback by that,” Panda said.

“I think it reflects the significant changes in the security environment this year, from China’s nuclear buildup to North Korea [and] general anxieties about nuclear threats relating to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

NZ’s worst security environment in decades

Given that, it was little surprise that many speakers, including newly appointed Australian defence minister Richard Marles, spoke of boosting their defence budgets in readiness for an uncertain future.

That raises the risk of New Zealand, freezing rather than commissioning new investments, being on the outer as a capability mismatch grows with other countries.

But Henare said Aotearoa’s defence spending was not raised in any of his bilateral meetings, and Marles provided his trans-Tasman colleague some support when asked by Newsroom about the growing gap.

“As we move forward in terms of modernising our own military, that’s completely consistent with the relationship that we have with New Zealand and the continued interoperability between our two defence forces.”

But David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, told Newsroom goodwill towards New Zealand from its regional partners could yet give way to more critical scrutiny of its security contributions.

“This is as bad a security environment as New Zealand has faced in decades. It’s going to continue to raise questions about whether the Defence Force has the resources it needs to carry out the growing range of tasks it is expected to do.”

The Government’s financial support of Ukraine, and alignment with the US, has already rankled some within New Zealand who seem to think an independent foreign policy should equate to pacifism.

That debate could just be starting, if the atmosphere at Shangri-La is a sign of worse to come.

* Sam Sachdeva travelled to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore courtesy of a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

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

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