In many ways, the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore over the weekend played pretty much as per the script. Going into the event, the Chinese side was acutely aware that it would come in for criticism, with US Defence Secretary James Mattis likely to lead the charge. Before arriving in Singapore, Mattis had already warned of increased US action in the South China Sea.
Beijing, therefore, sought to define the event an “academic exchange” as opposed to a policy-level dialogue. That didn’t, however, dampen the combative tone of the Chinese side. So while Mattis lashed out at Chinese “coercion” in the South China Sea, Lieutenant General He Lei, vice-president of the Academy of Military Science, charged the US with militarising the region, adding that stationing of Chinese soldiers and weaponry was a symbol of sovereignty.
The question that remains is whether the US is willing to do more that Freedom of Navigation operations to counter China’s growing power in the disputed waters? Perhaps sanctions against Chinese companies involved in island building or expanding military to military cooperation?
Despite that and much to Beijing’s chagrin, the Indo-Pacific narrative appears to be gathering steam. French Defence Minister Florence Parly has indicated that Paris and London will be coordinating their vision on Asian affairs, sailing together across “certain seas.” Japan, Australia and the US also reportedly agreed to work together to deal with any attempt to change the status quo in the South China Sea unilaterally.
Chinese state media, however, has churned out a rather glowing appraisal of the Chinese delegation’s efforts in Singapore, stating that “China has played a crucial role by upholding its concept of a comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.” One of the highlights for state media was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments about the need for “strong and stable” Sino-India ties. Chinese analysts have also welcomed Modi’s remarks. Unsurprisingly, there has been no mention of Modi’s language on the Indo-Pacific, rules-based order and ties with the US.
The Xinhua report after SLD also lashed out at “participants from some Western countries” who “tried to create tensions in the South China Sea, issuing false statements.” That’s becoming a bit of a theme in state media. Take this Global Times piece, which essentially cautions India from falling into a competition trap defined by the West.