Criticisms of Chinese militarisation fall on deaf ears at the Shangri-La summit

Asean National Flags in JakartaPhoto: Gunawan Kartapranata

China is unresponsive to US criticism over its South China Sea Conduct. Its hardening attitudes and Trump’s economic policy make further conflict likely. 


US Secretary of Defence James Mattis issued a stern warning to China. Mattis’s comments came at the annual Asian security conference in Singapore. He said the US was prepared to support China’s choices if it promoted peace and prosperity. However, he ominously added that there would “be consequences to China ignoring the international community”.

China poses a threat to a rule-based order

Mattis was referring to China’s unfettered militarisation in the South China Sea. China has constructed military bases and artificial islands in the disputed region.

Chinese warships recently challenged two US Navy vessels. Beijing claimed the presence of the ships in the area were a threat to Chinese sovereignty. The US maintains that it was conducting freedom of navigation exercises.

In his speech, Mattis criticised China’s deployment of missiles. Beijing placed advanced military equipment and missiles in the disputed Spratly Islands. Mattis also questioned China’s broader military goals.

The US has appealed to a rules-based approach to restore stability to the region. It has called for maintaining open seas. Other claimants have supported this policy. Beijing’s militarisation is a threat to this rules-based approach.

Mattis’s criticism fell on deaf ears

At the Shangri-La hotel, Mattis’s criticism fell on deaf Chinese ears. Chinese delegates dismissed Mattis’s comments as “irresponsible”. They maintained that China’s military deployment is within China’s sovereign scope.

This is typically Beijing’s response to criticism on the South China Sea issue. At last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke of the threat Beijing posed to a rules-based approach. The US, Japanese and French Defence ministers all echoed his comments. However, Beijing remained unphased and continued its military activities in the region.

This year, China made no secret of its contempt for the Shangri-La summit. It sent a low-level delegation led by He Lei to the event in Singapore. Lei is not a key figure in policymaking, his background lies in academia. This was a clear gesture of disengagement. Rather than send someone that could advance negotiations, it sent an academic representative. Beijing is more interested in deflecting and refuting criticism than finding common ground.

Despite the gesture, foreign policy is more important to Xi Jinping than it has ever been

There are signs that foreign policy is of central importance to Beijing. Xi Jinping created a position in the Politburo for Yang Jiechi. He is China’s top career diplomat and a former interpreter for Deng Xiaoping. Foreign Minister Wang Yi also received a promotion into the State Council.

These two moves consolidate and streamline Chinese foreign policy coordination. It puts foreign policy decision-making at the top level of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

With it, has come a firmer stance against international pressure. China now sees the South China Sea as a core national interest. It is on a par with Taiwan and Tibet. China’s latest stance against the movement of the two US Navy vessels demonstrates this. Beijing is willing to push back against the US naval presence.

Trump’s policies have weakened the US position

At the summit, Mattis berated China over its disregard for a rules-based approach. However, the US under Trump has not held rules-based approaches in high esteem. His recent steel tariffs have undermined international trading norms. They have disrupted global peace and prosperity through protectionist economic policy.

Beijing, therefore, has little incentive to adhere to strict rules in the South China Sea. China almost has full control of the region. Should China decide to deploy People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighters and bombers on its many bases, it will have full control over the disputed territory. The US and its allies are not in a strong position to negotiate.

Will ASEAN have to choose sides?

During his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich said Vietnam would not choose sides. Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen echoed his comment. He compared the US to China for its disregard for rules. ASEAN nations have no desire to choose sides in the escalating South China Sea conflicts.

However, they may have no choice. Beijing is hardening its position. China is increasingly resisting an open-sea solution. Washington is not about to end its military patrols either. This will put the US and Chinese positions at odds with each other. Future stand-offs look more likely.

China will not halt its militarisation. Under Donald Trump, trade-based solutions look improbable. His ‘America First’ economic policies have pushed the globe to the brink of a trade war.

The Shangri-La Dialogue was an opportunity to explore common ground. But China’s decision to send a low-level delegation left little room for engagement. In the end, each side dug in further and reiterated their positions. The chasm between the US and China’s positions will remain unbridged for now. ASEAN nations could find themselves with a difficult decision. Will they side with the US or China?