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Shangri-La: From dialogue to discursive statecraft

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue showcased contending narratives beyond Asian security, connected with broader alignments of principle, and framings of leadership and world order. 

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is far away from Southeast Asia in a geographic sense, and Russian officials were seemingly absent from the conference, yet the war was present in almost every discussion. The fact that a large country and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council is engaged in the conquest of a smaller neighbour presented a template for talking by proxy about some of the big ‘what if’ questions of Asian security; a grammatical structure for positioning the vocabulary of conflict management and order, provocation and deterrence, hegemony and leadership. 

Prabowo Subianto, the Indonesian Defence Minister (and presidential candidate at the April 2024 elections) surprised the crowd with a proposal for a cessation of the conflict. This plan does not appear to have been consulted with many in advance, even within his own government. Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian Defence Minister, dismissed it later that day (in a panel on Managing Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific Security), saying it was ‘strange’, and sounded like a Russian plan. Still, the motives behind the proposal and the reactions to it exposed the gulf between one narrative about the need for conflict to be settled justly in order to preserve deterrence, versus another of settlement through compromise for the sake of stability. 

Rising fear and uncertainty about large-scale international conflict returning to Asia after a peace lasting over four decades makes it tempting to look to the position countries take on the war in Europe as an indication of how they might react to a People’s Republic of China (PRC) invasion of Taiwan. Local dynamics cast doubt on the reliability of this indicator, as can be seen in the degree of support attracted by two counter-narratives. The first was expressed bluntly as ‘mind your own business’.

Counter-narrative 1: ‘Indo-Pacific security and Euro-Atlantic security are indivisible’ v. ‘Mind your own business’ 

John Chipman, the Director General and CEO of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) that organises the Shangri La conference, has written that the rules-based order only works if it is indivisible, but not everyone agrees. Responding (although only after prompting from the moderator) to a question about the close encounter at sea between his ships and those of the United States (US) and Canada, General Li Shangfu, the Defence Minister of the PRC, suggested foreign militaries ‘mind your own business’. 

The North Americans do not go along with this, but neither do European leaders, who were unusually plentiful in the list of speakers, including for the first time Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Kaja Kallas, the Estonian Prime Minister, presented the case that ‘Security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic area are inseparable’ with a narrative that seemed tuned to the legacy of colonialism in Southeast Asia. Kallas used her own and her country’s history to paint a picture of Russia that is not a champion of the oppressed against an aggressive West, but is itself an unreformed colonial power. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), by contrast, despite the myth that it is responsible for the war against Ukraine or some modern day imperial instrument, ‘exists to keep tens of millions of people from being enslaved and slaughtered by Russia.’

The fact that a large country and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council is engaged in the conquest of a smaller neighbour presented a template for talking by proxy about some of the big ‘what if’ questions of Asian security.

Angus Lapsley, the NATO Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning, spoke ably in a panel on nuclear dimensions of regional security, but his affiliated organisation featured in the dialogue more heavily than the speaker list might suggest. Cui Tiankai, the PRC’s former Ambassador to the US and Vice Minister of foreign affairs, built up to an attack on NATO by presenting a narrative about the lack of success Europe has had in managing its own security. Implying the Ukraine war is Europe’s fault prompts the inference that it lacks legitimacy as a security actor in Asia. Europe’s lack of success was presented in contrast to that of Asians, from whom, Cui suggested, Europe might learn something. Cui’s prepared remarks concluded ‘We will continue with our Asian ways of managing our security situation and managing all the regional issues. We do not need an Asian NATO. We do not want to see extension of NATO’s role in our region.’ 

The ‘Asian NATO’ straw man that appears in PRC and Russian narratives about Asian security over the last few years continues to be wheeled out despite there never having been a policy of NATO enlargement beyond the North Atlantic. But also featured in the talking points of Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defence, who felt the need to respond to a question on how the US sees European military engagement in the Indo Pacific by saying ‘the first thing I’d tell you is we’re not trying to create a NATO in the Indo-Pacific.’ A question on multilateral and minilateral formats brought a repetition: ‘We’re not trying to create a NATO in the Indo-Pacific.’ For some, Austin may have been protesting too much. Either way, anyone looking for a sign of welcome towards more US cooperation with the European military in the region did not get it from the Department of Defence. 

It was left to Ben Wallace, the British Secretary of State for Defence, to speak in favour of the proposed NATO liaison office in Japan. Wallace (said to be an aspirant for the job of NATO Secretary General) justified its value on the need to share awareness on Russian aggression in the Indo-Pacific as well as the Euro-Atlantic, which also has implications for security in the High North that is a direct connection to Europe. He made the additional point about the importance of moving towards common standards in military equipment for integration not just between NATO and Japan, but also with Australia and perhaps others in the Indo-Pacific. 

Counter-narrative 2: ‘Your hegemony, my regional leadership’ 

The PRC and Russia find NATO useful for their narrative that the US creates minilateral and multilateral structures and alliances as a way to impose its hegemony. What seems like the creation of a new ‘quad’, consisting of Australia, Japan, the Philippines and the US will only add to their discomfort. They also share another story line, about American abuse of the concept of a ‘rules based order’, which it uses selectively to punish enemies while exempting itself from those same rules. The two storylines were brought together in a new catch phrase deployed in General Li’s speech, where he accused America of imposing ‘hegemony of navigation’ in the region. While that might not prove a catchy idea outside of Beijing’s state controlled media, unlike a lot of the bromides and blatant untruths that made up much of Li’s speech, his question of whose rules are being applied consistently strikes a chord. After the American and Chinese delegates have traded claims of rule-keeping by themselves and rule breaking by the other – one’s Iraq war and economic warfare (e.g. Huawei), versus the other’s nine dash line and economic coercion – the audience is left feeling if not that each side is as bad as the other, then perhaps that neither of them speaks from a position of pure principle or acts consistently. Many will conclude that they are playing the same game: attacking hegemony in principle while seeking in practice to gain its rewards. 

What kind of dialogue? 

On the public level at least, this felt like a dialogue made up of four separate conversations: One, America to the region. Two, Beijing to the region. Three, a quieter but more inclusive discussion with middle and smaller powers in the region and beyond. The productivity of that conversation was shown by two defence agreements Japan reached with New Zealand and Australia over the weekend. As for the China-US conversation, the situation is less clear. China decided US Sanctions on General Li (connected to the purchase of Russian arms) prevented a direct dialogue with his American counterpart. On a less public level, reports of subsequent official contacts as ‘candid, constructive and fruitful’ are somewhat encouraging. In between such conferences, Beijing and Washington remain in communication via a fourth kinetic dialogue (in which the voice of Russia can also be heard) conducted in the grammar of deterrence and escalation, using the vocabulary of near-misses at sea, menacing bomber patrols over Japan and South Korea, mass airspace incursions, and sabotage of undersea infrastructure. 

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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