SINGAPORE — The 12th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore could easily have been renamed after Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing,” as Chinese officials offered little information about their defense and foreign policies on the eve of a summit between US President Barack Obama and newly appointed Chinese President Xi Jinping last weekend.
Sponsored by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the May 31-June 3 Dialogue was held a week before a Obama-Xi meeting in California to discuss cybersecurity, North Korea, the South China Sea and the US Asia pivot.
Just as Shakespeare’s comedic play ends joyfully with multiple marriages and no deaths, this year’s Shangri-La lacked any real sense of crisis, minus cyber, as China and the US held their tongues over the recent Chinese military incursion into India, challenges over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, disputes over exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and Beijing’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Though tough talk emerged from some members of the Chinese delegation, the dialogue lacked the normal hawkish rhetoric from delegates of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), although some comments did stretch credulity.
Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of the PLA General Staff, told attendees during his speech, “China has never taken foreign expansion and military conquering as a state policy.”
Qi made no mention of China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet, 1962 invasion of India, 1979 invasion of Vietnam or threats made to invade Taiwan.
Chinese delegates did challenge allegations of wrongdoing made by the US and others, but refrained from the typical outbursts of the past.
“In general, they wanted to tone down in the wake of the Obama-Xi talk … so as to create a better atmosphere,” said Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs expert at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Qi’s speech was a “great disappointment,” as it was “full of platitudes” and failed to confront serious regional security issues.
“I think that Qi Jianguo’s bland speech is a function of China’s preference to discuss the territorial disputes bilaterally at the upcoming Xi-Obama summit, which likely caused the PLA to exercise extreme caution in the prepared text,” Glaser said.
Ding pointed out that PLA Senior Col. Zhou Bo, a senior officer in the Foreign Affairs Office of the Ministry of National Defense, praised the speech made by Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on the importance of pursuing a “common security.”
Onodera did not mention territorial disputes with China in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, but he did say that Japan “actively supports ASEAN’s [Association of Southeast Asian Nations’] efforts for the establishment of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.”
China has a record of opposing multilateral approaches to solving disputes in the South China Sea and instead has adopted a bilateral dialogue with each member of ASEAN.
However, the US Pacific commander, Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear, who attended the dialogue, told ASEAN members June 5 at the 27th Asia Pacific roundtable in Kuala Lumpur that he supports a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China.
EEZs became a topic of interest at Shangri-La. During a special session, “Avoiding Incidents at Sea,” that included Locklear, Zhou announced that the Chinese Navy is sending ships on reconnaissance missions into an unidentified US EEZ.
“We have sort of reciprocated America’s reconnaissance in our EEZ by sending our ships to America’s EEZ for reconnaissance,” he said.
Zhou said this is infrequent “compared to almost daily reconnaissance by the US, along with their ally Japan, in our EEZ.”
Glaser said she wondered if the announcement was an intentional way to raise the EEZ topic during the Obama-Xi summit meeting.
Locklear confirmed China’s patrols to Defense News in a sideline meeting, but would not identify the location of the EEZ.
“They are, and we encourage their ability to do that,” Locklear said.
The US military has been challenged in the past by both the Chinese military and maritime patrol vessels during patrols within China’s EEZ.
The most famous incident was the 2001 midair collision between a US Navy EP-3 Aries reconnaissance plane and a Chinese Navy J-8 fighter jet.
In early 2009, Chinese maritime patrol and fishing vessels harassed two US Navy ocean survey ships, the Impeccable and Victorious, in China’s EEZ.
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