Opinion | Shangri-La Dialogue shows US-China rivalry extends far beyond Asia

More than 100 governments and international organisations, including the US, have reportedly confirmed their participation, whereas China has refused. Speaking to the media outside the conference, Zelensky described China as “an instrument in the hands of Putin”, and accused Chinese diplomats of seeking to undermine the peace summit.

For his part, China’s new defence minister, Admiral Dong Jun, used his speech to claim that China “has been promoting peace talks with a responsible attitude” and to deny charges that it allows the export of dual-use items to Russia’s war machine.


China urged to help end Ukraine war by President Volodymyr Zelensky at Shangri-La Dialogue

China urged to help end Ukraine war by President Volodymyr Zelensky at Shangri-La Dialogue

Although he praised US President Joe Biden’s proposal for a ceasefire, in past commentary, Prabowo has labelled the Western world’s response to Ukraine versus Gaza as double standards. He volunteered that Indonesia would contribute peacekeeping forces under the auspices of the United Nations if a ceasefire could be arranged. Malaysia’s defence minister, on the conference’s final day, suggested that a Palestinian representative be invited to the Shangri-La Dialogue’s future convenings.

In his speech, Marcos took aim at China without mentioning it by name. He roundly condemned the “illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive actions [that] continue to violate our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction”.

Marcos himself underscored the centrality of US-China competition to the security landscape. Their rivalry is “constraining the strategic choices of regional states”, he said, as well as “exacerbating flashpoints” and creating new security dilemmas.

In 2023, Beijing rejected a US invitation for then-Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu to meet his American counterpart Lloyd Austin. Austin’s meeting with Dong Jun this year reflected a mutual interest in preventing escalation, given the sharp differences that could lead to more open conflict.
The risk of a crisis loomed over the meeting. Just a week before the conference, Beijing staged a massive military drill simulating a blockade around the Taiwan Strait. Beijing explicitly characterised the exercises as “punishment” for the inaugural address by Taiwan’s new leader, William Lai Ching-te. Washington denounced “the use of a democratic transition as an excuse for military provocations”.
Beijing has also pressed its claim to territory in the South China Sea, prompting Austin to reiterate the US intention to exercise freedom of navigation on the high seas. In response to increasingly muscular actions by Chinese ships inside the Philippine economic exclusive zone, Marcos warned that if China’s use of powerful water cannons caused the death of a Filipino sailor, he would consider it “very close” to an act of war, potentially triggering the defence treaty with the US.

The meeting between the two defence ministers was described by the Chinese side as “positive, practical and constructive”, and by the US as “clear, direct, candid, firm and professional”. In the meeting, Austin criticised China’s behaviour towards the Philippines, and expressed concern over China’s growing nuclear, space and cyber capabilities.

Japan’s Defence Minister Minoru Kihara, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korea’s Defence Minister Shin Won-sik join hands after a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 2. Photo: AFP

Dong denounced foreign support for separatists in Taiwan and the incitement of provocations by the Philippines. One example that rankled China was the sideline meeting in Singapore that Austin held with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

China bristles at this grouping and the broader web of US security partnerships that it interprets as containment. Despite these areas of friction, however, the two sides agreed to increase military-to-military communication at the commander level to reduce misunderstanding, a move that could diminish the risk of miscalculation.

Austin faced the difficult challenge of simultaneously reassuring allies, stabilising the relationship with China and defending the US commitment to both Ukraine and Israel.

As if to underscore this balancing act, he travelled next to Cambodia in an effort to strengthen relations with a close Chinese ally, and then on to France to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day, with echoes of another moment when the world faced such stark and widespread divisions.

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue showed both the serious security challenges within the Indo-Pacific and the extent to which the region’s interests are intertwined with wars in Europe and the Middle East. The prominence of these wider international conflicts at Asia’s leading security dialogue and the divergent approaches of China and the US serve as a reminder that Washington and Beijing cannot silo different theatres of competition.

Daniel Russel is vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a US diplomat for 33 years

Emma Chanlett-Avery is the director of political-security affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute

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