This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), an annual security summit staged in Singapore, marked the formal coming of age of the “Indo-Pacific theater” and accordingly India’s emergence as a new pillar of the region’s security architecture.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who earlier visited Indonesia and Malaysia as part of a high-profile regional tour, delivered this year’s keynote address.
The Indian leader, known for his populist rhetoric and tough talk at home, delivered a confident, comprehensive yet relatively subdued speech.
He presented himself as a global statesman, overseeing the emergence of a new great power which views East Asia and the Pacific as its new strategic horizons.
“Our principal mission is transforming India to a New India by 2022, when independent India will be 75 years young,” Modi said.
He also emphasized India’s strategic independence and continued fidelity to its tradition of non-alignment. In this way he portrayed India as a global pivot state, comfortably navigating fault lines and heightened competition among superpowers.
Crucially, he repeatedly emphasized the necessity for a “free and open” as well as “rules-based” international order. Modi thus managed to implicitly criticize both American trade protectionism as well as China’s revisionist challenges to the maritime security of smaller neighboring states.
“Solutions cannot be found behind walls of protection, but [instead] in embracing change. What we seek is a level playing field for all. India stands for [an] open and stable international trade regime,” Modi declared, presenting India as an advocate of a global liberal order.
“We must counter forces that insulate us. India stands for a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it,” he said.
Careful to maintain India’s equi-balancing strategic posture, he praised the “maturity and wisdom” guiding New Delhi’s relations with Beijing, extoled the “extraordinary breadth” of relations with Washington, and noted “special and privileged” relations with Moscow.
Building on last year’s keynote speech by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Modi emphasized the centrality of middle powers, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), as a linchpin of the new Indo-Pacific order.
As Modi embraced a new era, where American leadership is under strain and China’s commitment to an international rules-based order in question, he effectively endorsed a vision where middle powers, rather than intransigent superpowers, serve as anchors of stability and prosperity.
In striking contrast, the United States Defense Secretary James Mattis took a more strident tone in his presentation, reiterating his country’s centrality to preserving a rules-based order in Asia. His speech came just days after the US renamed its “US Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in a nod to India’s rising security role in the region.
“Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater,” declared Mattis in his widely-anticipated plenary speech during the SLD’s second day, which brought together prominent defense officials and opinion makers from around the world.
He zeroed in on China as the primary threat to the regional security architecture, while presenting America as an indispensable element to a free and open Indo-Pacific order.
While Modi discussed maritime security in more abstract terms, emphasizing India’s growing role in helping regional states tackle non-traditional security concerns such as terrorism and piracy, Mattis focused sharply on the South China Sea disputes.
“China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes. It calls into question China’s broader goals,” argued Mattis, placing China’s maritime assertiveness front and center on the security summit’s agenda.
He criticized “China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea” as well as the “deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and, more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.”
He questioned China’s claim that these measures were for purely defensive purposes, since the “placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.”
At the same time, he extended an olive branch to the Asian powerhouse, reiterating America’s preparedness “to support China’s choices if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region.”
But Mattis quickly proceeded with describing China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea as suffering from a “fundamental disconnect” with “international tribunals”, indirectly referring to the Philippines’ arbitration award at The Hague case in 2016, which nullified China’s nine-dashed-line claims as contrary to contemporary international law.
The American defense chief also made a full-fledged endorsement of its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) as an international public good, ensuring “freedom of navigation for all nations.”
He warned that China’s continued maritime assertiveness would only alienate its smaller neighbors and undermine Beijing’s bid for leadership in Asia.
He also underscored America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security and de facto independence, criticizing China’s “unilateral efforts” to change the “status quo” and isolate the island nation, which Beijing views as a renegade province.
Mattis finally called for a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, making it clear that America would not abandon its traditional allies and would remain firm in its diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.
While Modi sought to usher in a post-American order in the Indo-Pacific, where middle powers are central players, Mattis presented America as the only reliable check on China’s revisionist ambitions.