Defence Minister Ron Mark had a front row seat from which to view Asia’s increasingly fractious geopolitics as he attended the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend. The Dialogue, billed as ‘Asia’s Premier Security Conference’ brought together 40 defence ministers, and hundreds of senior military officers and defence officials for two days of intensive discussions. As well as the keynote speeches, panels and thematic sessions, national delegations used the sidelines of the conference to engage in diplomatic speed-dating with counterparts from around the region. Mr Mark’s dance card included bilateral meetings with Australian, Canadian, Chinese, Singaporean, Malaysian and British counterparts (among others), as well as a breakfast with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
This year’s Shangri La Dialogue was in some ways ‘the summit before the summit’, coming just days before President Trump is due to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un just down the road in Sentosa. Perhaps because of that, North Korea featured less prominently than might otherwise have been expected. Instead, much of the attention was on increasingly sharp ties between Washington and Beijing, and on efforts to promote new ways of thinking about the region’s contested strategic geography.
For sceptics in Southeast Asia, however, the term raises concerns. Some fear it might sideline the Associate of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which likes to think it sits at the heart of regional cooperation. From Beijing, the Indo-Pacific and growing ties between India, Australia, the United States and Japan - in particular the nascent ‘Quad’ military relationship - looks a lot like a new containment. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi criticised the Indo-Pacific as a ‘headline grabbing exercise’ that will soon fade ‘like foam in the sea’.
Doubtless aware that many states in Southeast Asia are hesitant to endorse anything that might mean confrontation with Beijing, the Quad was largely absent from the Dialogue’s main speeches. US Secretary of Defense Mattis extolled the virtues of the Indo-Pacific, but when questioned about the lack of reference to the Quad in his speech, said he’d dropped a reference to it to save time (adding he thought it was an idea “fit for its time”.) Both Prime Minister Modi and Mr Mattis went out of their way to make soothing noises about the importance of ASEAN and ‘ASEAN Centrality and to deny that the Indo-Pacific required states to align against China. Mr Modi insisted the Indo-Pacific is not “directed against any country”, nor is it to be seen as a “grouping that seeks to dominate”.
But these assurances notwithstanding, the Dialogue also highlighted the increasingly confrontational relationship between Washington and Beijing and that the space for small and middle powers to navigate between them is getting smaller. In his remarks, Mattis said “if you'd asked me two months ago, I'd have said we are still attempting to maintain a cooperative stance with the PRC”, but that’s clesrly no longer the case. He said China’s ongoing actions in the South China Sea amount to ‘intimidation and coercion’, and that has consequences. One was that the PLA’s invitation to the annual RIMPAC exercise off Hawaii has been revoked. This, he said, was a “an initial response”, but “much larger consequences” would follow.
The Chinese response was more muted than previous years, at least in the plenaries. The official delegation from Beijing was small, and there were notably few Chinese think-tankers and academics at the Dialogue. The tradition that the Chinese representative kicks off Sunday morning’s discussions was dropped, apparently because of the low rank of the senior Chinese representative. Despite that, the Chinese didn’t miss the chance push back in the panel discussions, rejecting the claim Beijing had militarised the South China Sea, condemning US freedom of navigation operations, and making hay about the Trump administration’s latest tariffs. When speakers on the main stage endorsed the concept of the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese were quick to probe to see if everyone understood the term in the same way.
Concerns about China’s trajectory were certainly one of the unifying themes for many at the Dialogue, but most were just as alarmed by growing American protectionism and increasingly doubtful about the reliability of US commitments. In his closing remarks, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng remarks criticised both Washington and Beijing for using ‘core security considerations to justify…deviations from global norms’. He stressed the importance of the rules-based order and shrewdly quoted Xi Jinping’s recent commitment to “firmly uphold the international order” and pursue openness and multilateralism back at him, calling them “wise words indeed”.
Which brings us to Mr Mark’s speech. He spoke in a special session on Saturday afternoon and his remarks focused largely on suggesting some worthy principles for managing competition in regional security affairs. But perhaps of more interest to a New Zealand audience, were the clues he offered about what we might see in the government’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement, a public version of which will be launched in a few weeks’ time.
The first theme is that these are worrying times. Mr Mark opened by describing an “increasingly complex and challenging” strategic environment, in which “the international rules-based order is coming under significant pressure”. This pressure, is the result of geo-strategic competition, including efforts by “some states to pursue greater influence over others in ways that challenge international norms and at times the sovereignty of smaller states.” We can expect a much more pessimistic assessment of the strategic environment than we saw in the 2016 Defence White Paper. It will also be interesting to see if we get anything more specific than the “some states” formulation when the public document is released.
Second, Mr Mark confirmed the new Defence policy will give more attention to the Pacific. He said it will “reinforce the priority placed on the NZDF’s ability to deliver a range of operational effects in New Zealand’s immediate neighbourhood, stretching from the South Pole to the Equator.” Echoing the language of the government’s Pacific Re-set, he said “New Zealand is a Pacific nation” and the government places “substantial importance on our ability to work with our Pacific partners.” While the policy will “reiterate New Zealand’s long-standing commitment to contributing to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific and further afield” quite how it reconciles the trade-offs between tasks closer to home and in the wider region will be interesting to see.
Finally, Mr Mark’s speech included two words you won’t find anywhere in the last Defence White Paper: climate change. He noted that “due to climate change natural disasters are going to increasingly test us with their severity and frequency”. Accordingly, New Zealand needs “to prioritise humanitarian assistance and disaster relief cooperation so that when disaster strikes we don’t have to play catch-up but have the systems in place to respond appropriately and effectively.” With the Greens critical of defence spending and wary of NZDF deployments, climate change could be the glue that holds the coalition government’s defence policy together.
And what about the theme of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue: the Indo-Pacific? In Q&A Mr Mark was asked why in his speech he preferred to use the term ‘Asia-Pacific’. He replied, “we may need to adjust our terminology somewhat...you will see in the Strategic Defence Policy statement that we recognize the importance of India & Indo-Pacific region.”
You got the sense that however much Wellington might prefer to hold on to ‘Asia-Pacific’ or 'South Pacific', the ground is shifting. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan - an Indo-Pacific sceptic whose views frequently align with New Zealand’s - signalled during the Dialogue his attitude was changing. He told group of young leaders, “these are early days yet but I am saying based on what has been said [at Shangri La], these are concepts … that we can subscribe to”. Look for the New Zealand government to lay out its own position on the various Indo-Pacific proposals, including the Quad, and the principles that underpin them, sometime soon.
David Capie is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.