Did the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue talk shop, long a gauge of the Indo-Pacific’s geo-strategic temperature, presage a coming conflict between China and the United States, and potential end to decades of relative peace and stability in the region?

That’s the question regional strategic analysts and defense officials are now asking in the wake of the combative dueling addresses delivered by the two superpowers’ top defense officials at the normally tepid event.

While neither Chinese Defense Minister Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe nor acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan implored the region’s assembled defense chiefs to take sides, it would be difficult for regional states to remain neutral if a US-China conflict erupted in a nearby theater.

The dialogue saw China deploy its defense minister to the event for the first time in nearly a decade, bringing Beijing’s and Washington’s top security officials face-to-face in a public forum on hot button security issues, including the contested South China Sea and the future status of Taiwan.

The Pentagon had billed Shanahan’s keynote address as a preview of a new, tougher US strategy vis-à-vis China in the Indo-Pacific. While Shanahan spoke broadly of a new “toolkit of coercion” and no longer “tip-toeing” around China in the South China Sea, his speech was light on details.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks with Chinese defense officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, May 31, 2019. Photo: Simon Roughneen

The address coincided with the near simultaneous release of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which openly accuses China of “seek[ing] to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce other nations.”

The paper sets a confrontational tone and provides a new vision for the Trump administration’s until now unclear strategy for enhancing regional alliances and partnerships, extending America’s military presence and preparing contingencies for a potential conflict.

In an apparent first move, the US agreed to sell 34 surveillance drones to four regional countries with competing claims with China in the South China Sea region, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, according to media reports.

The $47 million sale, closed the day before Shanahan’s address in Singapore, aims to improve allies’ intelligence-gathering in maritime areas and includes US training and technical support. (The drones are produced by Boeing, where Shanahan formerly served as a top executive.)

Not to be outdone, Chinese Defense Minister Wei defended his nation’s recent massive island-building in the South China Sea as necessary for self-defense.
He pulled no punches in his speech, going so far as to warn the US: “A talk? Welcome. A fight? Ready. Bully us? No way.”

He also said that China, which has progressively dominated the sea’s adjacent waters through an elaborate strategy of reclamation, militarization and large-scale deployment of para-military forces to disputed areas, is willing to “fight until the end” for its claimed interests.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of the PLA Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

“The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has no intention to cause anyone trouble but is not afraid to face up to troubles,” said Wei in his address. “Should anyone risk crossing the bottom line, the PLA will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies.”

Recent months have seen a progressive escalation in Sino-American tensions amid the Trump administration’s evermore regular and assertive Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits.

These have gone hand-in-hand with America’s increased deployment of B52 bombers and reconnaissance aircrafts to preserve freedom of overflight in the area, and expanded joint exercises between the US Navy and regional allies such as the Philippines in the South China Sea.

During a late February visit to Manila, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made it clear, much to China’s dismay, that the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) will be activated if the Southeast Asian country’s aircrafts, troops or vessels come under attack by a third party in the disputed sea areas.

The Philippines is also exploring the potential purchase of advanced missile defense systems and other military hardware from its allies, including the US.

Through an expanded military footprint in the area, the Trump administration seeks to constrain China’s ambitions and empower its regional allies and partners to preserve a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific.

A US Navy vessel opens fire during a war games exercise in the South China Sea in 2016. Photo: Facebook

It was thus surprising to some analysts that Beijing used the forum to put forth such a pugnacious message. Analysts note the last time Beijing sent its defense minister to the dialogue was in 2011, the year before the South China Sea disputes took a dangerous turn.

The following year, China and the Philippines engaged in a months-long naval standoff that saw China take control of Mischief Reef, a feature in the Philippines exclusive economic zone. Despite America’s mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, the US at the time did not challenge the move.

Sensing a lack of US resolve, China began the next year its massive reclamation activities in various contested areas, transforming both the geopolitical and geological texture of the disputes, including concerns Beijing intends to establish an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the sea.

China thus became the Shangri-La Dialogue’s de facto bête noire, with leading powers including the US, Japan, Australia and European countries with Indo-Pacific territories, openly criticizing China’s threat to freedom of navigation and over flight.

In response, a displeased and then relatively isolated China only sent non-ministerial grade officials and low-ranking military personnel to the annual dialogue, where they mostly kept a low, not high, profile.

Wei’s speech thus marked a distinct shift in approach to the dialogue. To nearly every attendees’ surprise, the Chinese defense chief used the podium to openly defend his country’s 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, which killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, as well as the ongoing mass internment of Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang province.

China's aircraft carrier, The Liaoning, followed by destroyers and frigates during a naval exercise on April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP
China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier followed by destroyers and frigates during a naval exercise in South China Sea, April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP

Wei also warned that China will “make no promise to renounce the use of force” to reintegrate Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province, into what it refers to as Greater China by 2020.

The speech reflected Beijing’s growing confidence in asserting its strategic goals and defending even its most controversial policies before global audiences, a significant turn after decades of relatively low-key regional diplomacy which assiduously portrayed China’s rise as peaceful and non-threatening.

But regional states are increasingly wary of getting dragged into a superpower conflict that undermines the peace and stability that has underwritten decades of strong economic growth.

In his Shangri-La Dialogue speech, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that “no single power should exercise unilateral control over vital arteries of global trade, such as the South China Sea”

He articulated many Association of Southeast Asian Nations members’ “greatest fear” when he warned that the US and China could be “sleepwalking into another international conflict” like World War I, only this time sparked in Asia, not Europe.

Malaysia’s Defense Minister articulated a more hopeful middle path: “We love America. But we also love China.” He said his country wants the region to “remain an area of peace, friendship and trade, rather than one of confrontation and conflict” that requires regional states to reluctantly pick superpower sides.