High-profile meetings of policymakers tend to consist of platitudes and positional speeches. They generally aren’t memorable and rarely are they vicious. Yet the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore showed an unusual amount of fireworks.
United States defence secretary Ashton Carter delivered an intelligent and cutting address last week without being overly confrontational. His topics were varied, but his remarks about China’s movements in the disputed South China Sea got everyone’s attention. However, while everyone heard, few actually listened.
China is growing its military and economic might, both of which are leading to inflammatory territorial claims in its near abroad. Over the past couple of years, disputes over tiny islands in the East China Sea between Japan and China almost got nasty. Causing even greater concern is China’s claims in the South China Sea.
US surveillance overflights of the Spratly Islands – shoals claimed by China and the Philippines – show Chinese boats building artificial reefs and islands on the archipelago. If those islands were simply islands, few people would be upset. But the imagery shows China placing airfields and artillery installations on the fresh sand patches.
Mr Carter told the public dialogue, including members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), any attempt to turn an “underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit”.
He says the US military will “fly, sail and operate” in any international waters regardless of China’s plans. That tough US response has admittedly been slow in appearing, too slow in the eyes of many US allies in the region.
Because at the same time Beijing is pressing its dangerous idea of treating the South China Sea as a Chinese lake, the US Navy is rearranging its combat capabilities for the Pacific. This “streamlining”, as former US defence secretary Chuck Hagel called it, limits the funding for the US Navy substantially.
Yet Mr Carter’s speech avoids both demonising China and bringing attention to a US Navy’s catch-up game in the region. The narrative he presents is one of greater cooperation in achieving economic success across the Asia Pacific, and an emphasis on national self-determination of every country in reaching this goal.
That was a smart move by Mr Carter. China has been using its idea of a “community of common destiny” in dealing with the region and with Asean. So pointing out that China’s belligerent island reclamation puts it at odds with the rest of the region shifts the conversation from being a US-China problem to a China-Asia problem.
From the US perspective, the audience for Mr Carter’s narrative is not Western eyes. It is allies in the Asia Pacific which have been promised a US military umbrella.
As US President Barack Obama attempts to change the larger US strategic thinking to be less trigger-happy on the subject of intervention, military incidents where the US has so far declined direct military involvement, in Ukraine and Syria for instance, are causing nervous questions amongst Asian allies about whether that umbrella still exists when it comes to Chinese aggression.
Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines don’t necessarily desire US aircraft carriers intervening in the South China Sea, but they do want to know – not assume – that the US will defend their rights to self-determination and protect territorial claims wherever they might be. Mr Carter’s well-crafted speech helps assuage those concerns.
China’s audience isn’t the Western media either. If it wanted to threaten the United States’ implicit control over international waterways in the South China Sea, then its actions would surely be categorically different.
China’s navy cannot yet be considered a peer adversary to the US Navy, and China is decades away from competency in projecting force outside its self-imposed “Chinese lake” in the South and East China Seas. Its main imperative is ensuring some Chinese coordination over the particular rules governing those seas, but it isn’t ready to take the leap necessary for outright control.
Whether Beijing heard what Mr Carter says is largely unimportant – not because the CCP isn’t listening to American rhetoric, but because it wants the Chinese people to hear what Mr Carter says. The Chinese economy is slowing, and when the government’s legitimacy is intertwined with a promise of continued economic growth, then this economic reality becomes an existential problem.
There aren’t very many ways to fix it either. Corruption in China is so widespread that any CCP recourse to values of Confucianism is out of the question. Similarly, China’s evolution into a market economy doesn’t translate well for a reinvigoration of a Marxist ideology. One of the only options remaining for the ruling CCP is to stoke China’s nationalist credentials. Hence the sea spats.
The nationalist fire could have very different consequences if not handled well. But for the CCP, its existence depends on whether the Chinese people believe the party can protect everything the nation has worked for over the decades. Little flare ups in the South and East China Seas project to the Chinese people exactly the impression the CCP wishes to show.
If the Chinese wanted to possess the Spratly Islands there’s really very little stopping it from doing so. But the balance between seizing control of China’s waterways and retaining its economy dictates how far it is truly willing to play with military belligerency.
Mr Carter clearly speaks for an administration that knows exactly this, and his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue suggests the Americans are watching closely but see themselves in a strong enough strategic position not to unnecessarily increase the tension.
In private, the US will be reassuring its regional allies that its relationships cannot be undermined. In China, the message of CCP strength will equally be read loud and clear. The only people who aren’t listening is the Western media shouting about war.