“Can I give you a hug, my old friend?” So Chinese PLA Admiral Sun Jianguo greeted Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee on the sidelines of this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The admiral was on a charm offensive, striding the hotel corridors pursued by a huge Chinese press pack, and doing his best to make chummy small talk with everyone from the Australian Air Chief (who looked youthful) to the Russian Vice-Minister (bright eyes). But, as the weekend unfolded, not everyone got to feel the love.
Tradition has it that the US Secretary of Defense kicks off proceedings, and Ashton Carter’s Saturday morning keynote address to the opening plenary seemed designed to send two messages. First, he set out the now familiar mantra that the US is a resident power in Asia and is here to stay. Echoing a line used by Senator John McCain in a speech the day before, Carter said predictions the US would withdraw from Asia have been consistently proved wrong, and the US re-balance will continue long after this November’s elections. Describing US engagement with the region, the Secretary of Defense shrewdly started by talking up American diplomatic activity, then highlighting trade and TPP, and only finally touching on the military dimension.
Carter’s tone was mild (unlike a speech he gave recently at the US Naval Academy there was no reference to Chinese ‘aggression’) and in the Q&A he passed on the opportunity to talk tough when asked how the US might react to Chinese dredging of Scarborough Shoal. He even found time to say Washington would welcome a larger Russian role in the region. (For those wondering, “Kiwis” got a brief shout out in his address, listed among the nations that will provide the security ‘oxygen’ needed to let the region grow.)
Delegates had to wait until the next morning for a proper Chinese response, but when it came, Admiral Sun - now a SLD regular - did not disappoint. His speech was broadcast live on CCTV, and if Chinese viewers like to watch aging naval officers shouting, then his talk will surely have been a ratings hit. The charm offensive was forgotten while Sun delivered a fierce broadside against the Philippines, accusing Manila of being an “invader” in the South China Sea and breaking its word with China by taking its case to the “so-called” arbitration.
When it came to the US and Japan, however, Sun’s language seemed much more carefully calibrated. Sino-Japanese defence exchanges, he said are ‘in the process of being restored’. US-China arrangements to avoid maritime and aviation incidents were favourably mentioned. For the most part, even when critical, he preferred not to name names but rather to chastise “other countries” who would sabotage China’s efforts at building win-win cooperation. Lest anyone doubt Chinese resolve, however, he noted: “we do not look to make trouble, but we do not fear trouble.”
Of course, despite the headlines, there is always much more to the Dialogue than simply the US and China. The Singaporean, Indonesian and Malaysian ministers all indicated their biggest concern was the threat posed by ISIS-inspired terrorism. Everyone condemned the (absent) DPRK, but Russia and China made clear their opposition to the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defences on the peninsular. France’s Defence Minister surprised during the closing panel, by announcing that France will push for the EU to conduct coordinated naval patrols in the South China Sea.
Last year’s Dialogue gave Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee a platform to set out the most detailed statement on NZ’s position on the South China Sea. This year, with the minister not on the programme, the Dialogue was mostly about giving Mr Brownlee and his officials the chance to conduct of slew of bilateral meetings, as well as to meet as a group with colleagues from the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).The bilaterals will have provided a chance to speak in general terms about this week's upcoming Defence White Paper. In contrast, the absence of an Australian Defence Minister for the first time in 15 years and so soon after Canberra’s own Defence White Paper was published, was regarded by many as a wasted opportunity.
Press coverage of Mr Brownlee’s visit took two distinct tacts. One Chinese media article featured the headline “New Zealand Defence Minister Speaks Highly of China’s Role in the Region” noting that New Zealand is looking to deepen defence ties with Beijing. In it, Mr Brownlee repeats a line he used at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, that big countries like China can earn mana from the way they reassure small countries. The claim that China is currently taking “a forward leaning look” at regional security might have raised a few eyebrows, but the overall tone is about friendship and cooperation.
On the other hand, Bloomberg drew a very different set of conclusions from the same interview. The headline “China must explain South China Sea plans to small countries” will have set hearts fluttering in MFAT, but few of the quotes in the story live up to the billing. Again, most of what is said echoes Mr Brownlee's remarks from last year. The Minister notes that New Zealand surveillance aircraft regularly fly in the South China Sea, but says none have ever been warned away by China. That said, the story does include one rather interesting comment from Mr. Brownlee about China’s ‘historical rights’ claims over the South China Sea, the first public response on this particular point from the New Zealand government. The Minister said “some of those claims are, in history, no greater than the claims that Britain might have had over all of Australia, or all of New Zealand”. Well said. But one wonders if this means he won't be getting a hug from Admiral Sun next year?
Photo credit: Minister of Defence's Facebook page.