On the first weekend in June and for the twelfth year in a row, senior foreign policy makers, military officials, politicians, and defense industry representatives flocked to an exclusive hotel resort in this Southeast Asian city-state for the Shangri-La Dialogue Asian Security Summit. The event now draws a Who’s Who of global military power personalities: Asian, European and U.S. defense ministers; regional military commanders, including a high-level delegation of strategists from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) military.
Just to name a few of the items on the agenda:
• Almost every major nation in the region is in the process of acquiring a slew of new or used-but-modernized weapon systems. Regional defense spending is increasing faster than it is dropping in the United States and Europe. Both the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Indian Navy are putting aircraft carriers into operation (both vessels were built in Ukraine’s Soviet-era shipyards and bought used) and both are building new jet fighters seemingly faster than they build automobiles. Asian nations collectively spent more on defense in 2012 than the whole of Europe.
• Tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea are in the news almost daily and there are endless arguments over which islands or waters belong to which nation. The last few years in this contested area have seen skirimishes between naval vessels, fishing boats being rammed, and various nations planting their flags by setting up makeshift installations to bolster territorial claims.
• North Korea continues to be a crisis point and a geopolitical wild card. More than one question to the conference speakers from the floor asked whether it was now time for the nations in the area to start discussing how they might collectively respond to a collapse of this isolated and impoverished (but nuclear-armed) nation.
John Chipman, the director general and chief executive of the organizers for the event, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), made the understatement of the decade at the 2013 summit when he said “every year seems to produce an awful lot of tension in the Asia-Pacific."
But despite a record arms buildup and any number of age-old hatreds and rivalries that threaten to boil over at any moment, it is Washington that gets tagged as the party responsible for disturbing—as one member of the Chinese delegation called it—the “harmonious seas” of the region.
According to this interpretation of current events, America is exerting a destabilizing influence in the region through its announced “pivot” to Asia. Despite the fact that the idea behind the Shangri-La Dialogue is to give the nations in the region a vehicle for discussing and perhaps even resolving their differences, a good deal of this year’s focus was instead on the argument that the so-called pivot is a malicious attempt to contain the rise of China.
One of those raising this argument was Major General Yao Yanzhu from the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science. According to a U.S. official at the forum, Yao “masquerades at these events as a ‘simple, military academic,’ but make no mistake about it—she is really one of Chinese force’s chief strategists.” Yao went further than some of the other naysayers, alleging a U.S. plan to “encircle China” and saying that despite Washington’s assertions that the pivot toward Asia is not targeted against Bejiing, “China is not convinced.”
While the PRC might not be convinced that an enhanced U.S. presence is an attempt to keep a lid on the tensions in Asia rather than exacerbate them, other nations in the region show by their actions—if not their words—that they are far more concerned about Beijing’s motivations than Washington’s.
Almost every nation represented at the forum is looking to add more weapons to their arsenals as a consequence of PRC’s muscle-flexing. In the last year and a half U.S. defense industry executives whose territory includes Asia-Pacific have told me, in the words of one, “the Chinese are our best sales agents. Every time they sail their new carrier out of port or there is some sort of a maritime confrontation—that is when our phones start ringing with questions like ‘how much would it be again for those used F-16s fighter jets you were offering last month?’”
One of the nations most concerned with the rise of the PRC as a maritime power is Vietnam. Having fought a short war with the PRC 30-some years ago where the northern part of the country borders the PRC’s Guangxi Province, Vietnam remains very wary of Beijing’s intentions. By way of example, one of the primary missions for the Chinese submarine base on Hainan Island “would be to interdict the sea traffic going into Haiphong [Harbour] and thereby cut off the Vietnamese capital in a time of conflict,” explained one western defense industry executive. “For these and other potential threats the Vietnamese navy are now very interested in the advantages of acquiring U.S.-made anti-submarine warfare aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion, and like several of the nations in the region the air force would love to have some squadrons of F-16s to supplement their current fleet of [Russian-made Sukhoi] Su-27 fighters.”
But before any sales can be made to Hanoi, the country has to be taken off the State Departments International Trade and Arms Restrictions (ITAR) list of nations that are forbidden to purchase weapon systems from the United States. It is a listing that dates back to the Vietnam war and is arguably a Cold War anachronism today.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s actions to date show that they understand nothing about the utility of using arms exports to send messages to our adversaries, reassure our friends, and build bridges and new alliances with nations that have not traditionally been aligned with Washington.
One senior U.S. military official even drew aparallel with today’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Europe in the 1930s. “If you listen to the arguments that the PRC makes about its claims in different areas of this region what you hear is a modern-day version of ‘this is our Sudetenland,’” he said in a discussion between panel sessions.
But President Obama’s speech in Berlin about three weeks later was another demonstration of how his national security priorities must be formulated in some parallel universe. While obsequiously seeking more nuclear arms control agreements with Russia, he turned wishy-washy on the importance of containing the most potentially dangerous nuclear power of them all—North Korea. He allowed only that Pyongyang “may be seeking” its own atomic arsenal.
Given these kinds of performances it is hard to see these Asian nations having much faith in Washington as a security partner they can count on in times of trouble. This makes it equally difficult to see the tensions and potential for conflict going anywhere from where they are now to worse. But—do not worry—no matter how bad the picture may seem, when this conference takes place again in Singapore next year, you can be sure that someone will find a way to explain why it is all America’s fault.
Reuben F. Johnson is a correspondent based in Kiev, Ukraine, covering Russia and Asia for IHS Jane’s in London, a defense and foreign affairs information group.