Russia-Ukraine war, Indo-Pacific anxiety among topics at defense forum
Talk of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including comments delivered remotely by Ukraine’s president, and rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region dominated the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense summit, in mid-June 2022.
Remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe were a focus of the three-day summit in Singapore. Austin praised the vision of like-minded nations that adhere to international laws, stressed the need for multilateral partnerships with nations in the Indo-Pacific and spoke of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) increasingly aggressive actions in the region. Wei accused the United States of trying to turn Indo-Pacific countries against Beijing and said it is up to the U.S. to improve the bilateral relationship.
Austin related the Russia-Ukraine war to potential fallout from the PRC’s hostile moves in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and elsewhere, and to its border disputes with India. He said countries throughout the Indo-Pacific are coalescing to prevent dominance by any one nation.
Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, echoed Austin’s comments. He noted Russia’s “illegitimate and unprovoked” invasion of Ukraine and the deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific.
“As I look at what is going on, I see potentially the most dangerous period, certainly in my 30 years in this business, and potentially since World War II,” Aquilino said, according to The Japan Times newspaper. He cited increasingly aggressive behavior by Russia, the PRC and North Korea, which has destabilized the Indo-Pacific with repeated weapons tests.
Much has happened in the Indo-Pacific since the previous Shangri-La Dialogue took place in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the past two summits, which otherwise have occurred annually since 2002. The summit is sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and named for the Singapore hotel where it takes place.
“It’s a unique meeting where ministers debate the region’s most pressing security challenges, engage in important bilateral talks and come up with fresh approaches together,” IISS states on its website.
The 19th iteration of the forum had 575 delegates from 40 countries, according to Reuters. Along with the Russia-Ukraine war and the U.S.-PRC rivalry, key issues were territorial disputes, Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and North Korea’s military provocations.
Austin said many Indo-Pacific countries realize they are stronger together and share a common vision.
“We don’t believe that this vision can be imposed. But we do believe that it can be achieved,” he said. “By working together. By listening to one another. By acting as good friends and good neighbors. And by again showing the world the power of partnership.”
Austin highlighted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, both of which held summits in May 2022, as examples of multilateral efforts among allies and partners to promote a region that is open, inclusive and rules based.
“We seek a region free of aggression and bullying,” he said. “And we seek a world that respects territorial integrity and political independence, a world that expands human rights and human dignity, and a world in which all countries, large and small, are free to thrive and to lawfully pursue their interests, free from coercion and intimidation.”
Some of the most significant exchanges at the Shangri-La Dialogue took place on the sidelines as leaders met in bilateral discussions.
Austin met with Wei, but there was no breakthrough on long-simmering security disputes ranging from Taiwan’s status to the Chinese Communist Party’s military activity in the Pacific to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to The Associated Press. (Pictured: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Chinese National Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, far right, hold talks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2022.)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, appearing by video from an undisclosed location near his nation’s capital, Kyiv, said: “It is on the battlefields of Ukraine that the future rules of this world are being decided along with the boundaries of the possible.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivered the keynote speech. He said perceptions of security have changed drastically since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 in violation of international law. He cautioned that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow” unless all actors in the region are committed to peace and prosperity and work for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
IMAGE CREDIT: CHAD J. MCNEELEY/U.S. DEFENSE DEPARTMENT