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Shangri-La notebook: Happily, WWIII is not imminent



Every year since 2002, barring two Covid-caused cancellations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies has convened the Shangri-La Dialogue, named after the Singapore hotel in which it takes place but nonetheless a name redolent of a Chinese utopia.

It is an amazing gathering of defense ministers and senior military officials from all around Asia – more uniforms and gold braid than I have ever seen in any other context – plus the US secretary of defense and equivalents from Canada, Australia and sundry European countries.

It is therefore dedicated to helping prevent an Asian dystopia – in other words, a World War Three between the United States and China. Full disclosure: I chair the board of the IISS, which is why I attend every year.

Further disclosure: I am currently doing research for a book for IISS on how to avoid World War Three in Asia (not the actual title) so I snooped around this meeting with even greater attention than usual. Here are some observations from the event, in no particular order:


For the first time, Japan was the talk of the Shangri-La town for its dramatic 2022 decision to break free of its post-1945 pacifist constitution’s constraints and to expand its defense budget to become the world’s third-largest by 2027.

This, along with a new National Security Strategy last December that announced a major move toward a much more forward-leaning and active military posture, has suddenly made it a major player in the region.


In part, this is because, while Japan is allied with the United States, it is not America. It does not spark any public backlash when it starts to provide the Philippines with 10 new coastguard vessels to help protect its islands and fishing grounds against Chinese incursions or provides millions of dollars in grants to help build the Philippines’ military capabilities or negotiates a reciprocal access agreement for each other’s forces in each others’ countries.

Moreover, Japan’s economic influence and diplomacy in Southeast Asia, whether in the form of public or private investments or of its leading role in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) of 11 Asia-Pacific nations for trade and investment rules, is regarded far more highly than is the tepid economic outreach of the United States, with its so-called Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (summary: we’ll talk to you about anything other than free trade).


The two elephants in the Shangri-La room, China and the United States, essentially engaged in a communications game, vying to assign blame to each other for stirring up regional tensions and for failing to honor international law.

Turning to football parlance, my view would be that the United States won the game by about a 5-1 score, with that one Chinese success being a US own-goal for having maintained a deeply pointless set of sanctions on China’s new Minister of Defense General Li Shengfe, for his supposed transgressions in doing business with Russia during a previous role.

This handed China a perfect excuse for refusing to accept the US’s proposal of a private one-to-one meeting between General Li and the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, and made the US look foolish. Nonetheless, the two sat down facing each other at the same table at the conference’s opening dinner; Li accepted Secretary Austin’s offer of a handshake; and Austin accepted Li’s later offer of a mutual toast.

The Singaporeans, who pride themselves on maintaining a friendly and apparent equidistance between both sides (even while collaborating pretty deeply with the US military), will have been very happy.

The reason why, on my football metaphor, China ended up conceding so many goals is that, in Li’s formal speech and in many of the questions posed to other speakers by the largest Chinese delegation that had ever been sent to this event, the Chinese failed to respect either the interests or the intelligence of the many Southeast Asian countries sitting in the audience.


The posture China took was a self-righteous one of claiming to be a great defender of international law, a firm believer in treating other countries with mutual respect and the greatest exponent of “ASEAN centrality” – that is, considering the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be its main and respected interlocutor.

Yet every single senior official or scholar present from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and many others knew that if anyone were to follow Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to “seek truth from facts” they would instantly see that China’s own actions show up this posture as hypocritical nonsense.

They know that in the South China and East China Seas China violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on a daily basis, even while being a signatory to it, and ignores “ASEAN centrality” by trying to pick off member countries one by one.

They know that the country that accuses others of “bullying” and “hegemonic” behavior is itself guilty of both. By highlighting this vast gap between its pious rhetoric and its real actions, China made the clearest possible case to countries in the region for maintaining and even enhancing the American military’s presence as a balancing force.

‘Hegemonic navigation’

One striking and clear example of China’s domineering attitude was General Li’s use of the phrase “hegemonic navigation.” He used this in an effort to discredit the so-called “freedom of navigation operations” that American and other naval ships practice in the international waters of the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

South China Sea. Mlap: Asia Times files

The phrase appeared designed to imply to Southeast Asian nations that the American, Australian, French, British, German, Dutch and Japanese ships sailing in these international waters are somehow seeking to dominate those seas rather than to maintain open international sea lanes.

When challenged over recent allegedly dangerous intercepts of American vessels and planes by Chinese ships and fighters, his answer was straightforward: such incidents would not happen if those American ships and planes hadn’t been there, poking their noses in what he clearly considered Chinese business. He also claimed that China never flies or sails close to other countries’ territorial waters, a claim that was clearly news to Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, let alone Taiwan.


The underlying point was clear: China considers that the entire South China Sea belongs to it (in accordance with its notorious “nine-dash line” map), despite all legal rulings to the contrary. The real “hegemonic navigator” was on full display. 

Substantially for that reason, the clearest trend highlighted by the weekend’s discussions was the considerable progress the Biden administration has made in using its direct security alliances (with Japan, South Korea and Australia) and less formal partnerships (with the Philippines, Singapore and others) to extend its military basing, exercises and logistical network in the region.

Far from being considered “provocative” by the region, this latticework of collaboration and, in some cases, deterrence, is considered to be welcome.


The Philippines in particular is now enthusiastic about this expanded American presence, especially as it is coming in partnership with Japan and Australia.

The surprising but revealing point about Chinese behavior is that it is so blatant and stubborn: During the 2016-22 presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who made overtures towards Beijing in the hope of receiving economic rewards for accepting China’s rebuttal of a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the international legal status of atolls and shoals in the South China Sea, China made lots of offers but Filipino officials reckon it delivered on “about 5%” of its promises.

Meanwhile, China continued to bully Filipino fishermen and operate freely in Filipino territorial waters. Seduction of former president Duterte would have been cheap, but China either couldn’t be bothered or didn’t think it needed to.

No wonder his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, has swung so firmly towards America and Japan, providing the US military with access to four bases where it can now pre-position equipment and supplies, and negotiating the deals with Japan that were mentioned earlier.



The European star of the Shangri-La Dialogue was undoubtedly Ukraine. Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s minister of defense, put up an impressively clear and robust outline of his country’s situation and intentions.

When Indonesia’s defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, surprised his own officials by proposing a “peace plan” for Ukraine that involved a demilitarized zone separating Russian-occupied territories from the rest of Ukraine and referendums in those occupied territories, he drew a pointedly disdainful comment by a Vietnamese questioner who resented Prabowo’s claim that Vietnam somehow provided a historical precedent for this idea.

It was plain that Prabowo’s “plan” was not resonant even in a region quite prone to the “Why can’t they just talk and be friends?” argument.

Indonesia’s defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, speaks in favor of his Ukraine peace plan. Photo: Twitter Screengrab

And then Reznikov neatly skewered Prabowo’s ideas as “a Russian plan.” None of the Chinese officials and scholars present succeeded in convincing attendees that China’s “position paper” on Ukraine had yet come within a million miles of being an actual peace plan.


It was, however, Kaja Kallas, the youthful prime minister of Estonia, who provided the most convincing case for backing Ukraine and for opposing Russian imperialism when she outlined the history of Russian invasion and colonization of her country during the 20th century, involving mass killings, deportations and active replacement of Estonians with Russian settlers – a playbook that, as she pointed out, Russia is following again today in Ukraine.

Her own family history of suffering at Russian hands added further poignancy.

One cannot know whether those present who are susceptible to the argument that “NATO expansionism” is somehow responsible for Russia’s decision to invade a non-NATO country will have been persuaded by Kallas to change their minds, but few will have discounted her description of why the small, vulnerable state of Estonia wanted to become a NATO member in 2004 and, following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, to host a small NATO force inside its borders so as to help deter Russian interference or invasion.


Naturally, the voice that was not heard was that of Taiwan. But everybody’s mind was on Taiwan and the prospect of a Chinese attempt to coerce the Taiwanese into “unification” through a blockade or full invasion.


Li read out the official Chinese line on this: that Taiwan is an internal matter for China in which outside powers should not interfere; that under all past agreements it should be moving towards unification; that China reserves the right to use force if necessary.

Rightly, he warned that a superpower conflict over Taiwan (or anything else) would be a global disaster. Yet the general mood was calm.

If Ukraine holds lessons for Taiwan it is that an invasion would be hugely costly and risky; that Western willingness to support the victims of an invasion is far greater and more durable than either Russia or China previously imagined; and that the more invading forces need to step over, destroy or circumvent Taiwanese or Western military assets, the riskier and more costly it will get.

Moreover, Taiwan is holding a presidential election next January, so it makes sense to wait and see whether the more status quo-oriented Democratic People’s Party retains power or is displaced by the more emollient Kuomintang. Whatever the Chinese equivalent of mañana may be, it is currently the best sort of reassurance available.

Currently an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairsBill Emmott from 1993 to 2o06 was editor-in-chief of The Economist. 

This article was originally published by his Substack publication, Bill Emmott’s Global View. (Subscribe here for free to receive his posts.) It is republished by Asia Times with kind permission. Follow the author on Twitter @bill_emmott

Source: Asia Times