The spats may harden into a stand-off – with China on one side and the US and the rest of the region on the other – that will be difficult to break.
Held in Singapore every year since 2002, the Shangri-La Dialogue has become one of the – if not the – most anticipated security-related events in Asia. The dialogue owes its prestige to high-level government representation, regularly bringing together defence ministers from inside and outside the region, allowing for bilateral and multilateral meetings on the side of the official conference agenda.
Unsurprisingly, the dialogue has been dominated in recent years by a single issue: the South China Sea dispute. The speed and scale of China’s island reclamation in disputed waters that has taken place since last year’s meeting and the US countermoves in the form of freedom of navigation operations meant that its 15th iteration was no exception.
For all the glittering international presence, most attention has naturally been given to speeches by US Defence Secretary Ash Carter and head of the Chinese delegation Admiral Sun Jianguo (孫建國), the deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission.
If there is one thing that the dialogue will be remembered for, it is a new term, “principled security network”, coined by Carter. He used it to describe the existing multilayered web of alliances, partnerships and initiatives spanning Japan to India, and in this respect he was not pointing out something particularly new. But the emphasis on principles was remarkable. Carter used the words “principles” and “principled” 36 times in his address. He also stressed that a “principled security network” is inclusive, open to any nation and military wishing to take part.
Moreover, he pointed out what should be obvious to everyone in the region: Beijing’s actions create anxiety among its neighbours. “As a result, China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation,” said Carter.
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