The Shangri-La Dialogue that ended last week dominated the heightening tensions between the US and China on both the economic and military fronts which is a deep source of regional anxiety in the Asia-Pacific region.
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The conference ended without much reassurance about the stability in the region, which emanates from the rivalry between these two superpowers that is likely to linger for a period of time.
At the conference, the US Defence Secretary said the Indo-Pacific region was a “priority theatre” where the US would support partner nations against domination attempts by any one nation.
He said that the shared geography of the US spurred the integration and linkage of its economies as US two-way trade is $2.3 trillion and US foreign direct investment is $1.3 trillion, more than China’s Japan and South Korea’s combined.
While he did not mention China by name, his words often seemed to be directed at some attempts by Beijing to portray US as an outside power provoking disquiet in the region.
China, which sent its defense minister, General Wei Fenghe to the conference took an aim at US’ activity in South China Sea and with Taiwan while defending Beijing’s own ongoing actions in the restive province of Xinjiang and during the Tiananmen square incident 30 years ago.
He also reserved his strongest remarks over Taiwan saying that “the Taiwan question bears on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, adding that any attempt by pro-independence forces to split Taiwan from China or attempts at foreign intervention are doomed to failure, and that while China would strive for a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, it will not rule out the use of force to do so.
While the tensions between the two superpowers are not likely to abate very soon, the US appears to rope in more allies that shares their course in South China Sea with the prospect of Asean centrality remaining intact.
China had received another message that the trilateral group comprising Japan, Australia, and the US was united in their shared commitment to do more together in support of security stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.
In addition, the ministers shared their vision for an Indo-Pacific region that is open, inclusive rules-based and respectful of the sovereignty where disputes are resolved peacefully and free of coercion.
With the message from the trilateral group, Asean centrality remains intact and attempts to thwart the grouping by any party would invariably fail. The ministers agreed to continue to closely coordinate support in the region to maximise the benefits of their national and combined engagement activities in a transparent, efficient and effective manner under their shared strategic vision.
For Asean, it can continue to forge economic relations with China but it would be made known very equivocally to the Chinese that it would not be at the expense of compromising its centrality or its security.
The US had already formed a quadrilateral alliance with Australia, Japan and India, but it needs to combine military and geo-economic aims to contain China’s military expansion in the Pacific and Indian oceans as well as providing alternative development models to China’s massive international infrastructure drive, the Belt and Road Initiative.
The US has failed to attract countries other than the Quad to its side for fear of taking sides against China. The US strategy must expand to include non-traditional players.
The US should understand that its offerings focus too much on security and there are anti-China initiative, something Washington has to address through investment and economic programs.
With the greater economic aid and programs, the US could ultimately expand its influence in the region. It needs to build partnerships outside the Quad with countries in Southeast Asia.
Sathish is a Contributing Writer, Capital Cambodia
An ex-analyst in a think tank in Malaysia.