Drums of war at Shangri-La

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 14 Jun 2022

There were some positive outcomes from the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in the Asia-Pacific region, despite the background sound of the drums of war.


The International Institute for Strategic Studies held the 19th edition of its Shangri-La Dialogue on 10-12 June in Singapore. Forty-two countries attended, and the keynote speaker this year was Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is a key security forum in the Asia-Pacific region that has been debating important strategic and security questions for many years. This year, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered remarks at the dialogue on the US vision for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Also attending the dialogue was Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

The dialogue took place amidst growing tensions in US-Chinese relations as well as in the Indo-Pacific region over the last 12 months after the US Biden administration began establishing a string of alliances in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions. It came two weeks after Biden’s first Asian tour, when he visited two staunch allies of the US in East Asia, namely South Korea and Japan.

While in Tokyo, Biden also hosted the fourth Quad group summit meeting in less than a year that brought together the Japanese prime minister, newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his talks on security issues in Asia and the Pacific with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Biden dwelled extensively on the questions of China, Taiwan, North Korea, and the war in Ukraine.

Last September, the Biden administration also announced the setting up of a new military alliance in the Indo-Pacific known as AUKUS and made up of Australia, the UK, and the US. Needless to say, the main adversary from the standpoint of these countries is – you guessed it – the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Against such a background, it was not surprising that in his remarks on the first day of the Shangri-La Dialogue Austin did not mince his words as to Chinese intentions as seen by the US administration. “The PRC’s moves threaten to undermine security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

He added that the US had witnessed, in his own words, “growing coercion from Beijing” and had also seen “a steady increase in provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan” that “includes PLA [Chinese People’s Liberation Army] aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months and on a nearly daily basis.”

Recognising that not all Asian powers share the alarmist US vision of China or want to be in a position in which Washington tells them that either you are with us or against us, Austin made a positive nod to the wise position adopted by the Singapore prime minister in which he stressed that “nobody” should force “binary choices” on the region. Austin called this position the right one, adding that the Indo-Pacific nations should be “free to choose, free to prosper, and free to chart their own course.”

The Chinese delegation answered this when Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff of the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Zhang Zhenghong told reporters at a media briefing in Singapore that Beijing wanted to express its “strongest dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to the accusations levelled against China by the US secretary of defence.

He added that the US had declared that its Indo-Pacific strategy “will promote freedom, openness, and prosperity,” whereas “its true intention is to use the strategy to maintain its hegemonic system.”

The way China interprets the US strategy in Asia was summed up by Zhenghong when he said that it would “inevitably drag the Asia-Pacific region into the track of geopolitical rivalry and bloc confrontation,” thereby “surely damaging the regional cooperation architecture based on Asian centrality.”

Undoubtedly, the Chinese vision will find listening ears around Asia, particularly within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

On the other hand, the keynote speaker at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue was Japanese Prime Minister Kishida. The last time a prime minister of Japan addressed the dialogue was in 2014 in the person of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

This year Japan talked about its vision of “proactive pacifism,” whatever this might mean by combining “proactive” with “pacifism.” Kishida promised that his country would be more “positive than ever in tackling” the crises that face Japan, Asia, and the world. He spoke of the “Kishida vision for peace” and of boosting Japan’s diplomatic and security role in the Asia-Pacific region.

Without mentioning China by name, he said that his country was taking a “firm stand” in the face of what he termed “unilateral attempts to change the status quo” by force in the East China Sea. He tackled the question of Taiwan by stressing that peace and stability are of “extreme importance” in the Taiwan Strait.

He also announced that Tokyo would provide assistance to the naval forces of countries in the Indo-Pacific region that would amount to $2 billion as well as technological assistance destined to help them carry out maritime surveillance missions.

Japan embarked on an ambitious modernisation programme for its military in 2016. This includes the construction of 19 conventionally-propelled submarines and 22 frigates and the acquisition of 47 US-made fifth generation F-35 planes, as well as developing, in cooperation with the US company Lockheed Martin, six new generation F-6 planes that can carry out maritime and aerial surveillance missions and anti-submarine warfare.

In 2016, the military budget of Japan stood at 42 billion euros, a sum that represents one per cent of Japan’s GDP. The intention is to raise it to represent two per cent of GDP to align it with NATO defence budget ceilings.

The 19th Shangri-La Dialogue will be remembered mostly for the important in-person meeting between the US and Chinese defence chiefs on its margins in Singapore, a first since the Biden administration came to power in January 2021. The two men exchanged views on regional and international questions including Taiwan and the war in Ukraine.

The meeting goes to show that the US and China would like to keep direct lines of

communication open at the highest levels to avoid any miscalculations by either side as to the intentions of the other. This in itself is a positive and reassuring sign that despite the tensions between the two in the Asia-Pacific region, they would still like to keep on talking for the sake of security and stability in this volatile part of the world, instead of simply beating the drums of war.


* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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