Discussions of free and open Indo-Pacific dominate 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue

Discussions of free and open Indo-Pacific dominate 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue


Debate over how to maintain economic and national security in the Indo-Pacific prevailed at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, held in early June in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, anindependent think tank.

China and the U.S. must avoid conflict, or the world economy will be hurt, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loongsaid during his keynote address. The forumdrew defense ministers and top military officials from 57 nations, including the defense minister from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the first time since 2011.

“Even short of outright conflict, a prolonged period of tension and uncertainty will be extremely damaging,” Lee said. “In economic terms, the loss will be not just a percentage point or two of world GDP [gross domestic product], but the huge benefits of globalized markets and product chains.”

The relationship between China and the U.S. overshadowed the annual security dialogue. “China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region,” acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told the forum in his plenary address that followed Lee’s June 1 speech.

“But behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end. Until it does, we stand against a myopic, narrow and parochial vision of the future, and we stand for the free and open order that has benefited us all, including China.”

In conjunction with Shanahan’s speech, the U.S. released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR), subtitled “Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region,” on June 1, 2019. The report details how the U.S., its allies and partner nations will achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific, one in which “all nations, regardless of size, are able to exercise their sovereignty free from coercion from other countries” and “that promotes sustainable growth and connectivity in the region.”

Shanahan and PRC Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, pictured, met May 31, a day before the conference began in Singapore, which many analysts took as a positive sign.

During a question-and-answer session following Wei’s speech at the forum the next day, June 2, he said: “Conflict, confrontation between countries, including that between China and the U.S., does not serve the interests of the two peoples, and it does not serve the interests of the whole world. I talked with Secretary Mattis [former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis] in the past and that was our consensus; I also talked with acting Secretary Shanahan and there was also an understanding between us. China and the U.S. are two major countries, and no one can defeat the other. A sound and stable relationship between the two countries, particularly a sound and stable relationship between the two militaries, is very important to the two sides. A stable military-military relationship is also important to the stability and peace of the whole region.”

Wei’s words didn’t necessarily match the PRC’s actions in recent years, given, for example, its construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea and “its expansive approach to what belongs to China” in the region, as various conference participants pointed out.

Shanahan told the forum that the U.S. would no longer “tiptoe” around the PRC’s aggressive behavior in the region.

“Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order,” he said.

Shanahan said the U.S. is investing in new military technology to counter new and emerging threats and maintain its military superiority and capabilities to defend its allies and partners in the region.

“The Indo-Pacific is our priority theater. We are where we belong. We are investing in the region,” he said, adding that military investments will increase significantly over the next five years.

“We want to ensure no adversary believes it can successfully achieve political objectives through military force,” Shanahan said. For example, he said North Korea “remains an extraordinary threat and requires continued vigilance.”

Shanahan said that China and the U.S. need to develop a constructive relationship to compete in a positive way. “Competition does not mean conflict. Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules.”

“At the end of the day, this is about growing the prosperity of the region. We need security — security underpins that — but it is about growing prosperity. I am confident that the opportunity exists, but it has to be grounded in norms and rules and communication, and we will put that in place.”