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China keeps mum at the Shangri-La Dialogue

Updated On: Jun 06, 2006

The Fifth Asia Security Summit – the Shangri-La Dialogue – boasted the largest turnout of defence ministers and the best overall participation since it was last held in 2002. But the absence of any high level defence personnel from China spoke volumes amidst international (especially the US) concerns for the former’s growing economic and military might, shrouded in secrecy in recent years.

According to the organiser, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank, a total of 16 defence ministers or their deputies and 11 chiefs of defence force participated in the dialogue, which has become the top priority platform for Asia-Pacific security issues to be discussed, especially the question of China and its influence in the region.

One of the major show-stoppers has been the “forceful and frank” comments by Donald Rumsfeld, often seen to be targeted at China.  The Dialogue’s status as a non-government meeting ensured no-holds-barred action. Last year’s meeting saw verbal spats between US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and China’s representative, Cui Tiankai, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia bureau, on the reasons for China’s military built-up – whose details still remain opaque today – against unapparent external threats.

A scathing Pentagon study issued just last month of China’s under-reporting of its military spending added fuel to the debate for this year’s Dialogue, as Rumsfeld persisted in pressuring China to “demystify” its investment sources and motivation. 

China’s relatively successful and high profile diplomacy in Southeast Asia through FTAs, disaster and development aid, military cooperation and energy deals have prompted late US knee-jerk moves to “re-energise” its relations with the region, according to Washington insider and former Bush aide Richard Armitage. Such a sentiment is reiterated by Rumsfeld during the Dialogue, as he reminded ministers in attendance that Asia-Pacific “remains a strategic priority for Washington”.

Another thorn in the flesh is the Sino-Russian alliance to counter US hegemony, such as the China-Russian war game last year involving a Taiwan invasion plan, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (a Central Asian grouping sponsored by China and Russia) which fronted the call for withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and accorded Iran observer status to the group.

China, in response to US pressure, appeared to re-buff the platform altogether by sending a lower-ranking official, Tan Qingsheng (deputy director of the Foreign Ministry's Asia bureau), in spite of Rumsfeld’s earlier call for Beijing to boost its participation level during a visit last October.

Chinese analysts explained that the Dialogue has been interpreted by Beijing’s leaders as anti-China and dominated by the US and its allies, leaving no room forChina to “voice itself”. Another irk includes the participation of Taiwan.

How long can the Shangri-La Dialogue continue to claim that it is one of the foremost security forum without active participation from China remains to be seen. What is clear however from this year’s dialogue is that the US-China jostle for attention and influence in the region will continue, albeit with distinctly different diplomatic moves emerging, as the former chooses high-profile loquacity over the latter’s reticence.

Sources:

Biggest turnout for security meet (The Straits Times, 2 June 2006)

China's rise prompts US to 're-energise' S-E Asia ties (The Straits Times, 2 June 2006)

Rumsfeld urges China to come clean on military spending (The Straits Times, 3 June 2006)

Rumsfeld to stress US commitment to Asia-Pacific (AFP/ The Straits Times, 3 June 2006)

No high-level Beijing team as forum is seen as anti-China (AFP/ The Straits Times, 5 June 2006)