U.S. and China lay out competing security visions for Asia-Pacific

SINGAPORE — Defense leaders from the United States and China laid out their competing visions of a modern security order in the Indo-Pacific this weekend, with the American side championing Washington’s expanded network of security partnerships, while Chinese officials promoted their own such alliances and cast the United States as a foreign aggressor meddling in Asian affairs.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Dong Jun, each delivered addresses at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual international security conference in Singapore — one of the rare settings that brings senior officials from the rival militaries into proximity with one another through panel discussions, dinners and cocktail hours in a luxury hotel. Austin and Dong also met on the summit’s sidelines on Friday, their first meeting in two years.

Competing rhetoric over the course of the weekend’s debates — much of it referencing recent events, such as China’s spate of large-scale military exercises around Taiwan less than two weeks ago — underscored the sense that regional tensions have grown increasingly incendiary.

The dialogue also allowed the two powers to make their arguments before an international audience of their peers, including defense officials from nearby South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and others — themselves the targets of U.S. and Chinese influence campaigns and the often uncomfortable bystanders to a global strategic power struggle.

Both Austin and Dong appealed to shared values and a respect for international law, without mentioning the other’s country by name, at a conference that nonetheless revolved almost entirely around the U.S.-China relationship.

In his address to the conference Saturday, Austin stressed the United States’ vast and expanding network of security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific — a clear warning to Beijing, observers said, that further Chinese military aggression in the region could prompt a U.S. response.

“We are operating with our allies and partners like never before,” Austin said, noting that the United States has recently “secured a series of historic agreements with our allies and partners to transform our force posture throughout the Indo-Pacific.”

U.S., Japanese and South Korean forces are training together in “unprecedented” ways, he said. The United States and the Philippines, along with Australia and France, recently completed their largest annual Balikatan joint naval exercise. The United States has also forged new levels of defense cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

And this was “just a starting point,” Austin added. “We are on the verge of even more powerful changes” in U.S. force posture in the Indo-Pacific, he said.

Dong’s remarks on Sunday largely mirrored Austin’s rhetoric but flipped the claims of respect for international order and allegations of unlawful aggression to blame Washington and its allies and partners. It is China that is committed to peace and that has exercised tremendous “restraint” in the Asia-Pacific region, Dong said, alluding to the United States — without naming it — as a nefarious outsider seeking to influence the affairs of a region where it doesn’t belong.

China, too, has vast strategic partnerships around the world, Dong said, as well as the ability and willingness to arm and train other countries in the region. “We have a well-established system of military education, and we are ready to provide greater support to other countries in personnel training and offer tailored courses to meet different needs,” he said.

In remarks that hewed closely to Beijing’s usual talking points, Dong described China’s aspirations to live in a “multipolar world” — as opposed to one dominated by the United States — and appealed to the rest of the region’s “unique Asian wisdom” and shared experience of “imperialism” from outside forces.

China’s disputes with Taiwan and in the South China Sea were regional issues best resolved between regional states, not by outsiders, he said — again, without referring to the United States.

“Anyone who dares to separate Taiwan from China will only end up in self-destruction,” Dong warned.

A subtle regional shift — against China

The growing frustration felt by many of China’s regional neighbors over Chinese intimidation at sea, as well as the criminal and cyberthreats posed by Chinese state-affiliated companies, was also palpable over the weekend, as academics and representatives of other Asian countries that have drawn closer to the United States in recent months picked apart Dong’s claims and accused China of dishonesty.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in his opening remarks Friday night, laid out what many interpreted as a warning to China, referring to the “illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive actions” that were undermining regional security in territorial waters claimed by the Philippines — a likely reference to intensifying aggression by the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia that has regularly blocked the passage of Philippine ships near disputed islands in recent months.

Marcos’s remarks illustrated the sharp pivot the Philippines government has taken in the past two years, aligning itself more closely with Washington and breaking with the previous administration’s more deferential approach to China. Any “willful” act that led to deaths of Filipinos during the standoff with China would be considered an “act of war,” triggering a U.S. military response under the countries’ mutual defense treaty, Marcos said.

Others also raised objections.

During a question-and-answer session following Dong’s speech on Sunday, Chung Min Lee, an expert on Korean and Northeast Asian security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, addressed the minister sharply, laying out the contradictions between Dong’s claims of peace and cooperation from the podium and the state-backed cyberattacks against China’s neighbors, its support for North Korea’s dictatorship and the threatening behaviors of its coast guard in contested waters.

“How can we trust you when your work and your actions are totally opposite?” Chung asked, prompting applause from the multinational audience.

Meanwhile, when a Chinese military officer and academic at China’s Institute of War Studies, Sr. Col. Cao Yanzhong, suggested Saturday that NATO expansion in Europe “led to the Ukraine crisis,” Austin garnered applause when he said he “respectfully” disagreed with that claim.

“I thought it was striking that there was spontaneous and widespread applause,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who attended the conference after meeting with officials in Taiwan and the Philippines. The notion that the United States and NATO set off the Ukraine war is “a narrative that I hear a lot in the Global South,” he said.

The United States has been able to expand its strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific “in large measure because of the aggressiveness of China,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), another member of the Senate delegation to Singapore, told reporters.

To the smaller nations of Southeast Asia, China is an inescapable “geopolitical fact,” Bilahari Kausikan, former ambassador at large for Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview. But there is also a growing, albeit often unspoken, acceptance that the United States, too, is an “irreplaceable part of the security balance,” Bilahari said. “That is not so much a success for U.S. policy as a failure of Chinese policy.”

Even as some Asian officials brooked stronger public dissent with China than in previous years, many were cautious not to take their criticism too far.

Wang Dong, a scholar at Peking University and member of the Chinese delegation to Singapore, observed that no other country’s officials made statements as strong as Marcos’s, saying: “The absence of public support for the Marcos position speaks volumes about what other regional countries consider a pragmatic approach.”

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an Indonesian academic, worried during a question-and-answer session whether the twists and turns of the U.S.-China relationship would leave the rest of the region “trampled.” And Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen stressed that the region found Washington’s and Beijing’s stated aversion to conflict “reassuring” but also said that “most of us here would agree that the U.S. and China are the dominant factors to decide Asia’s fate of this decade and beyond.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who made a late arrival to the conference Sunday, also trod carefully around China, criticizing its alleged arms support for Russia but also appealing to Beijing to participate in Ukraine’s upcoming peace summit in Switzerland.

“We need the support of Asian countries,” Zelensky said during a news conference. “We respect each voice, each territory. … We want Asia to know what is going on in Ukraine.”

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