China & the Shangri La:

Dialogue as Foreign Policy

24 Jun, 2013    ·   4007

Rana Divyank Chaudhary analyses the impact of the Dialogue on perceptions of power politics in the Asia-Pacific

Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Research Intern

The 12th Shangri-La Dialogue was the first occasion in 2013 when the leaders and top defence officials of Western and Asian countries met on a common platform to discuss the security issues in the Asia-Pacific. Needless to say, the series of international confrontations in the region earlier this year were in the foreground of these deliberations. And, as has now become the routine, the forum was watched most closely for the exchanges between China and the United States on persisting bilateral issues.

A great deal of attention was paid to the speeches and reactions from China's delegation at the summit. What impact does the Dialogue create on the perceptions of power politics in Asia? How did China respond to the international stakeholders debating subjects it considers to be its ‘core interests’ and strategic prerogatives? How might it influence the discourse in the future?

Changing Tones in the Age of Dialogues
There has been a proliferation of regional forums and multilateral dialogues centring on the Asia-Pacific. Dialogue is a natural first recourse for states at a time when military power along with offensive capabilities is dispersing uniformly among them. This is owing to rapid economic growth, technological modernisation, and regional and global market integration. Consequently, military conflict neither passes the cost-benefit calculus nor promises desirable outcomes anymore. And, the rise of a purported potential hegemon in China right across their territorial borders presents strategic difficulties which now seem inexorable to many Asian states.

Marking a new chapter in the Asian security environment, hitherto determined by alliances with distant superpowers, these states whether big or small now seek international acknowledgment of their interests on their own terms. Besides, the United States’ promise of a ‘pivot’ is a welcome development and assuages fears arising from domestic political problems, lagging military preparedness, and geostrategic disadvantages for its allies in the region.

The new thinking now is to discuss these developments at the Track One level with as much candour as possible. The Shangri La Dialogue achieves this by hosting defence policymakers and narrows down a backchannel distinct from political engagements between states.

But, these platforms are not fit-for-all so as to produce significant breakthroughs. There is no change for the better in the status quo of long-standing disputes in the region. Arms race, resource competition, information warfare, and alliance-making continue unabated. Surely, there is a need for dialogue and certain conflict is being pushed into the future because the parties are not insulated in their ambitions and insecurities. However, there could also be such a thing as an excess of dialogue.

Soft Voices, Big Sticks
Beijing did not sugar-coat its unwillingness to defer to international or third-party role in the resolution of maritime disputes and in negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea. The Chinese made their opinion clear on the American strategy to rebalance military capabilities in Western Pacific and to reinforce existing alliances in East and Southeast Asia.

But General Qi Jianguo, leader of the Chinese delegation, also reiterated China’s interest in keeping relations harmonious with its neighbours, and that the changes in the strategic balance spurred on by the United States’ pivot to Asia could threaten regional amity and stability. In turn, China found itself in the Americans’ crosshairs over allegations of waging cyber espionage and compromising the latter’s economic assets.

China has learned to use common platforms to engage in soft pacifist rhetoric while remaining relentless in high-stakes negotiations. Multilateral dialogues present an opportunity for China to let others know its intentions, which by itself serves to stall hostile manoeuvring by its interlocutors. It also makes way for the less dramatic and more acceptable process of others gradually counter-balancing Beijing. Its delegations did not shy away from responding to critical queries and showed preparedness to talk, listen, and promise action.

Invariably, the gripe was that Beijing does little to match its promises in actuality. But for China, such criticism is neither new nor threatening. It picked its battles while it remained silent and on the sidelines elsewhere. The Chinese possibly look at this as a dialogue where the critics vent their disagreements and go home quieter than before. It seems that there is little to lose from sparring at these conventions. Smaller states get a sense of security in numbers and the informal nature of these Track One talks gives one hope of accomplishing more which would otherwise be hampered by political coverage and protocol.

China does not cede any leverage on matters of dispute and from Japan to Vietnam, its counterparts resort to a very limited lexicon to voice concerns often verging on rhetoric. But, Beijing could perhaps push a shift in the paradigm used by the world to judge its great power aspirations. A subtle and unlikely favour that the United States has enjoyed in its post-War pre-eminence comes from allowing for individual criticism from its own citizens, often against its behaviour in the international system. The Americans’ belief in the moral foundations of their foreign policy is an attribute of the United States’ soft power. China too, could permit and encourage its individuals and prime institutions engaged in opinion-making to critique government actions and foreign policy-making at home and abroad. It would serve to temper belligerent outside criticism and narrow the openings for it.