The 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted in Singapore over the weekend, has been characterized as uneventful in comparison to heated debates of previous years, with all parties "playing nice". US-China relations were a focal point of the Dialogue, particularly regarding the US "pivot" back to Asia and China's increasing presence in the South China Sea.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's keynote speech underlined the dedication of the United States in strengthening Washington's relationships with its global allies and security partners. After his speech Mr. Panetta answered questions about the US-China relationship, openly acknowledging a history of distrust between the two countries.
Mr Panetta predicted "ups and downs" in their future ties, but stressed that both countries recognized their "common obligations to try to promote peace and prosperity and security in this region". Secretary Panetta also made a point of stating that the US is not interested in being involved in territorial disputes, but encourages nations across Asia to make efforts to solidify regional standards concerning international disputes.
During the summit, Mr Panetta announced the intention of the US military to deploy 60% of its warships to the Pacific by 2020. Concerns were raised over how China would react to this news in light of Beijing's ongoing dispute with the Philippines over territorial claims in the South China Sea. The head of the Chinese delegation, Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, addressed the issue diplomatically saying the action was the "United States' response to its own national interests, its fiscal difficulties and global security developments."
General Ren was part of the small ministerial Chinese delegation that came in place of China's minister, General Liang. The official explanation was that General Liang was busy dealing with domestic issues but his absence was conspicuous following what has been a period of paranoia, "secretiveness and mounting aggression" in China concerning the South China Sea issue.
On the surface the US-China relations were cordial, but the performance of the American delegation called special attention to the low-profile of the Chinese delegation. Chinese representatives were responsive to the US's speech, and expressed interest in improving relations with the US, but were otherwise noted as being unengaged at the Summit. Assumptions emerged that China's relative absence is indicative of increasing instability within the country, or an attempt to dodge questions about the current political upheaval.
Secretary Panetta plans a trip to China later this year, with the aim of building military ties between the two countries.
Report: Access to Pacific Harbors Key to US Strategy: Panetta (Reuters, June 3, 2012)
Report: Uneasy US-China Relationship Overshadows Amicable Summit (Straits Times, June 3, 2012)
Report: China Morning Round-Up: Shangri-La Dialogue (BBC, June 1, 2012)
Report: 11th Shangri-La Dialogue Opens in Singapore, S.China Sea Spats Top Agenda(Global Times, June 2, 2012)
Report: Beijing Shrugs as Shangri-La (The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2012)
Report: Secretary Responds to China Concerns During Dialogue (U.S. Department of Defense, June 2, 2012).