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Contending narratives at the IISS Shangri-La dialogue 2022: Beijing’s lost horizon?

In the 1933 novel ‘Lost Horizon’ that introduced the fictional setting of Shangri-La, the inhabitants of that secluded valley live for centuries, ageing in appearance only very slowly. In the second week of June 2022, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) resumed its Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in the Singapore hotel of that name. Following a two year Covid-induced hiatus, it was natural for the audience to wonder how much has changed in the interval. Looking back now, it seems that two competing narratives about the region have evolved incrementally since 2019, but one is ageing better than the other. 

The narrative advanced by the United States (US) and its closest allies is of a regional security order that, if not quite perfect, ought to be changed only through peaceful means. According to this essentially conservative outlook, the main threat to the region is the increasingly aggressive and coercive behaviour of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which seeks to alter that status quo, even by threat or use of force. 

To add on top of the established basis for this characterisation (Chinese assertion of dubious maritime claims, and its rejection of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea jurisdiction), the increase in dangerous interceptions[↗] of Canadian and Australian surveillance planes by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force jets were cited as instances of increased PLA aggression and disregard for norms of air safety and rights of overflight in international airspace. Canadian aircraft are in the region to monitor United Nations (UN) sanctions on North Korea. As they go about the implementation of the organisation’s business, they find themselves harassed by one of the Security Council’s own permanent members. 

The PRC has an alternative narrative[↗] that all would be well with the Indo-Pacific region were it not for US-led efforts to stir up trouble between Beijing and its neighbours, in an attempt to contain the PRC, to prevent its inevitable and irresistible rise to great power status, and the attraction of respect from its neighbours and the wider world. 

Beijing’s narrative is in trouble for three reasons. 

The first is because of an unforced error in putting the PRC alongside Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, and his regime in a ‘no limits[↗]’ friendship, broadcast shortly before the latest invasion of Ukraine. Subsequent actions by Russia, and the PRC’s failure to condemn it or row back on its partnership, undermines Beijing’s claims to stand for the principle of sovereignty and respect for international law. It is also a gift for those who hold up the Ukraine war as proof that the risks of big power aggression in this century are real, and demonstrate the need for multilateral preemptive deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. As Lloyd J. Austin III, US secretary of Defence, told[↗] the SLD audience: 

‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all. It’s what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbours. And it’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in’. 

Beijing’s rejection[↗] of any comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan masks a strange irony. It is correct that Taiwan is not the right parallel to Ukraine, but that is because Taiwan’s situation is similar to Donbas, which would put Beijing in a position similar to that of Kiev. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) emphasis on the sanctity of its sovereignty over Taiwan should put it at the forefront of those denouncing Russia’s annexations and support to the breakaway Ukrainian Donbas regions. 

This brings us to the second problem with the PRC’s narrative, which is its glaring lack of integrity. For instance, when General Wei Fenghe, the Chinese Defence Minister, stands in front of an audience of regional security experts at SLD, and states[↗] the flagrant historical falsehood ‘China has never invaded other countries’, they must wonder if anything else that comes out of his mouth can be trusted. 

General Wei referred in more oblique terms to the ‘meddling’ of un-named ‘non-regional countries’, stirring up trouble. But in the Q & A session that followed his speech, the poor General was interrogated about flashpoints on all corners of his country: on the Indian border, the relationship with Russia, failure to agree a code of conduct on the South China Sea, and was also chided for denying the PRC’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Deflecting such questions with armour-plated rhetorical boilerplate, he implied the US is the ‘mastermind’ behind the Ukraine ‘crisis’, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation part of the ‘root cause’. While predicting the PRC-Russia relationship would grow, he defined it as a partnership not an alliance, (on the basis that it does not target any country), and stated pointedly that the PRC had given no material military support to Russia. 

The whole format of the SLD – where answers to questions are scrutinised by experts in real time, where the representatives of large countries receive no special treatment compared to smaller neighbours – is one where CCP representatives have to work extra hard to maintain their preferred pose of natural supremacy. Officials accustomed to communicating from a position of greater control over the information space seem to struggle[↗] to respond to expectations of accountability and transparency. If the PRC continues to become more authoritarian at home, its officials may become even less adept at diplomacy in a public setting like the SLD. 

The third weakness in the PRC narrative is that by making America the main organising principle of its geostrategic policy, Beijing overlooks and perhaps underestimates the interests and agency of its neighbours. 

A prime example is Japan, who’s Kishida Fumio, the Japanese Prime Minister, was this year’s SLD keynote speaker. Kishida has just jettisoned the attempts of his predecessor, Abe Shinzo, to build peace through good relations with Russia. Even before the February war, Moscow’s alignment with the PRC and joint PRC-Russian naval deployments around the Japanese coast have led the Japanese to place Beijing and Moscow into the same basket. 

Japan is debating the acquisition of what it calls ‘counterstrike’ capability, i.e. missiles capable of hitting targets in the PRC or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea if it comes under attack. For this reason, as well as the realisation that inventories and capabilities have to be more prepared for war, there is a consensus[↗] that defence spending will almost double over the coming five years. None of this is because of urging from the US, though. If anything, it is a hedge against the day when America may be less engaged. 

This tendency to overlook the interests of its neighbours may explain in part why Beijing has little to show for its rhetorical efforts to rally the region against ‘outside’ meddling. Negotiation of the South China Sea Code of Conduct[↗] with Southeast Asian nations has dragged on for years without result. After the embarrassment of backing Putin’s aggression, the communist leadership responded to the first in-person summit of Quad leaders (Australia, India, Japan, US) in Tokyo by sending Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, on a Pacific Islands tour, seeking support for a regional deal on security. He returned empty handed[↗]

Meanwhile, the G7 summit this weekend adopted further measures[↗] against Russia (which also restrain the PRC), and this Wednesday’s NATO summit will host a new Indo-Pacific 4[↗] grouping made up of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The US narrative on the need to bring together would-be victims of big-power aggression seems to be faring somewhat better than the alternative.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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