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SINGAPORE — At a major conference billed as a “dialogue,” the top defense officials of the United States and China found themselves locked in a standoff. Flash points had flared across the region: In the skies above the South China Sea just days earlier, a Chinese fighter jet performed what U.S. officials described as “an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” when intercepting a U.S. aircraft. Over the weekend, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urged his Chinese counterparts to open channels of communication with the United States, a Chinese ship nearly collided with a U.S. destroyer transiting through the Taiwan Strait.
There was no bilateral meeting between Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu, even though they spent the weekend under the same ritzy roof. They shared an awkward handshake at dinner Friday night, an exchange that Austin would later say was no “substitute” for more meaningful engagement. The two were the star guests among the hundreds of dignitaries from 54 countries gathered at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual summit organized for the past two decades by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a British think tank, with support from the Singaporean government.
The tension between the two powers shadowed all discussions. In the keynote address Friday evening, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he feared that a “breakdown” in U.S.-China dialogue could trigger a chain of escalation that “would be devastating for the world.” Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida, chief of staff of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, said the international community was at a “watershed” moment, with the specter of war looming over Asia. The next day, Indonesia’s defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, warned that “the danger of catastrophe is near.”
In their separate speeches, both Austin and Li stressed their nations’ desire to avoid conflict and promote stability. But they talked past each other: “We do not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion,” Austin said. Li, in turn, groused about the desire for “hegemony” of a certain “big power.” Austin declared that the United States was not trying to create a new NATO in Asia through its deepening partnerships with a host of regional powers. Li, unmoved, said attempts to forge “NATO-like” alliances would send Asia “into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts.”
The conference’s delegates mostly warmed to Austin’s rhetoric. The U.S. defense secretary seemed intent on lowering the temperature of the moment. On Saturday morning, Austin insisted that the United States had no desire to change the status quo around Taiwan — the self-governing island democracy that Beijing claims as part of China — and that it believed that conflict in the region was neither “imminent nor inevitable.” And he called out Beijing’s current refusal to engage the United States in more substantive dialogue.
“The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict,” Austin said. At the same time, he reminded the room of the scale of American involvement across Asia, its forging of new regional defense agreements and upgrading of existing partnerships.
Bec Shrimpton, director of defense strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told me the defense secretary’s speech “was powerful in its combination of direct and indirect messaging to China,” where Austin both “made clear the U.S. was ready and willing to ‘pick up the phone’” yet also reminded Beijing that “no matter where you go or look to compete, we are there already, we are a partner of choice, and we are a partner of power.”
Li, who took the stage the following day, offered a somewhat charged and pointed rebuttal. After Austin had put forward the usual American solemnities about safeguarding the “rules-based international order,” Li fired back, saying the “so-called rules-based international order never tells you what the rules are and who made these rules.” In his telling, China was the nation safeguarding norms and regional stability, and the United States was an interfering interloper.
Li also pulled no punches on Taiwan, calling out its ruling party for supposedly stoking “separatist activities” and declaring that the island will be inevitably “restored” to the mainland. He shrugged at the weekend’s incident in the Taiwan Strait, saying that the U.S. and allied naval vessels transiting through the strategic waterway were not making “innocent passage” and were stoking tensions. “What’s the point of going there?” Li asked. “In China we always say, ‘Mind your own business.’”
The strident tone was conspicuous and led to an immediate backlash. Jay Tristan Tarriela, deputy commander of the coast guard of the Philippines, challenged Li on the apparent hypocrisy of his message, given China’s documented encroachment and violations in the South China Sea.
“Li talked about mutual respect, refrain from bullying and opposing hegemony. That’s richer than the kaya toast I ate yesterday for breakfast,” observed Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, referring to the mixed coconut cream, pandan leaf and egg custard spread that’s popular in the city-state.
“I have attended the Shangri-La Dialogue for more than a decade. Over that period the speeches by Chinese defense ministers have become increasingly assertive, but Gen. Li’s speech was the most pugnacious of them all,” Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute think tank in Australia, told me. “We often hear about China’s ‘charm offensive,’ but this speech was devoid of charm.”
Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the underlying subtext of Li’s speech was that China believes “the U.S. fundamentally is not an Asian power and thus should relinquish its forward presence in the region.” The dynamic on show at the conference was “likely to be a new normal as U.S.-China relations reach new lows,” he said, adding that instead of engaging the other, “both countries will use forums like this to present competing narratives and their preferred visions for regional security.”
floated the idea of a “thaw” between the two countries. But such rapprochement is “unlikely in the near term,” Ivy Kwek, a China fellow at the International Crisis Group, told me, since China sees the very “terms of dialogue with the U.S. as being unfavorable to them.” That’s a source of growing worry in the region, she added, as the vast majority of Asian countries view strategic rivalry between the United States and China as a destabilizing risk.
“The overwhelming feeling was of concern,” Fullilove said in the aftermath of Li’s speech. “No one in Asia wants to live in the shadow of a giant neighbor. We all want our place in the sun.”