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The United States and China advanced competing visions for regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific at Asia’s largest security conference “Shangri-La Dialogue” that took place in Singapore on 31 May – 2 June, 2024. This year’s dialogue in Singapore’s Shangri-La hotel marked its 21st iteration, commencing in 2002. In order to understand the divergent visions and goals put out by the defence ministers of the US and China, it is important to grasp the prevailing geopolitical environment.

Currently, the Asia-Pacific region has emerged as the epicenter of great power competition between the US and China. The US is concerned about China’s growing stature as an economic and military powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, it views China as the most likely competitor to its influence and unparalleled hegemony in the world. The US and its Western allies share a worry that Beijing would establish a China-centric version of order in the Asia-Pacific region. They also attempt to frame China as a threat to the US-led liberal international order. Therefore, the US under both Trump and Biden administration took a strong stand against China to counterbalance its rising influence both at regional and global level. This demonstrated a bipartisan consensus within the US against China. It also indicated that the US has ultimately chosen to transition from a policy of engagement to one of competition.

China under Xi openly expresses their intention to take on a more proactive role in global affairs and fulfill China’s perceived responsibilities. In March 2023, Xi modified the previous foreign policy slogan consisting of 24 ideograms in order to shape China’s position in the coming years. The revised slogan “Be calm; keep determined; seek progress and stability; be proactive and achieve things; unite (under the banner of the party); and dare to fight” seeks to enhance China’s global influence and construct a multi-polar world order that protects its interests.

Moreover, Beijing under Xi has advanced the concept of a “Community of a common destiny for mankind” as a substitute for liberal internationalism, which China perceives as largely serving Western interests and ideals. This vision was realized with the initiation of the BRI in 2013. Additionally, China pursued a significant military build-up and modernization, involving the development of advanced weaponry and the enlargement of naval forces. Beyond that, China has engaged in the utilization of coast guard for maritime law enforcement to enforce its territorial claims and assert control over disputed areas and the implementation of an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy via the deployment of advanced weaponry and systems to restrict foreign military access.

In contrast, the US under the Trump administration announced the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy back in November 2017. It has also received the endorsement of the Biden administration. The FOIP strategy aims to address China’s challenge to US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region by building a network of alliances and partnerships as part of its foreign policy approach with countries that share similar interests. These treaty alliances and partnerships are the basis of the US security commitments aimed at strengthening collective defence capabilities, deterring aggression, and promoting stability. In addition, the US participates in security cooperation with different countries, which include activities such as exchange of intelligence, joint military exercises, and collaboration in defence technologies. They demonstrate the US dedication to maintaining shared values, promoting regional stability, and addressing mutual issues in the international arena. Within that particular context, the significance of Japan, Australia, and India as democratic nations is noteworthy. It is important to mention that the US is connected to these states through the Quad and it represents the most tangible manifestation of the FOIP concept. Cited above themes offers the essential background context and is necessary for contextualizing the statements and positions expressed during the conference.

The most positive outcome of this year’s Shangri-La dialogue was the 75 minutes sideline meeting between the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Admiral Dong Jun. This is the minister’s first face-to-face encounter since 2022. The two sides discussed the establishment of a crisis communication working group as a component of the “Policy communication arrangements” that both parties committed to implement in the future. Moreover, they discussed various topics such as the relationship between their respective military forces, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In his speech titled “United States Strategic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific” Austin emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of military-to-military communication by stating “dialogue is not a reward but a necessity” and pledged to conduct more discussions with China. He added that “like-minded countries” in the region have strengthened their relationship with the US and witnessed a “new convergence around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo-Pacific.” He also noted that Washington’s previous security approach in the region was similar to a “hub and spokes model” with the US as the central power. However, it has now transformed into a “set of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions” driven by a common vision and “shared sense of mutual obligation.”

Conversely, Dong in his speech titled “China’s Approach to Global Security” said “We will not allow hegemony and power politics to harm the Asia-Pacific. Nor will we allow geopolitical conflicts, cold war’s or hot wars to be introduced into the Asia-Pacific.” Moreover, Dong issued a stark warning to Taiwan’s new president William Lai Ching-te and cabinet, specifically addressing their alleged inclination towards separatism. He issued a threat that “whoever dares to split Taiwan from China will be crushed to pieces and invite their own destruction”. Dong also criticized the US without naming it, for undermining the One-China principle by selling weapons to Taiwan and attempting to “use Taiwan to contain China.”

The statements by Austin and Dong at Shangri-La highlighted the fundamental differences between the US and Chinese visions for the Asia-Pacific. Dong presented Taiwan as a core interest and an internal matter. He tried to highlight that China won’t tolerate any foreign interference. Contrarily, Austin indirectly criticized China’s posture around Taiwan. He referenced the recent Chinese military exercise (Joint Sword-2024A) as detrimental to regional stability. In relation to the South China Sea, Dong accused (the Philippines) of provoking incidents due to the influence of other powers, a thinly veiled reference to the US. He also criticized the US-led Freedom of Navigation operations arguing that these actions were hegemonic and unnecessary as they did not hinder any civilian navigation freedoms.

Meanwhile, Austin reiterated the US commitment to the international rules-based order and freedom of Navigation. He also termed China’s harassment of Philippine resupply mission at the Second Thomas Shoal as destabilizing and dangerous. He refuted allegations that the presence of the US military was provocative. Rather, he tried to frame as an essential step to ensure regional stability and provide support to allies and partners in the region. The US emphasizes a rules-based order, freedom of navigation, and strong security partnerships to ensure regional stability, However, China focuses on sovereignty, regional solutions free from Western intervention, and a firm position against perceived separatism and external provocations. These competing narratives represent the broader strategic competition that is influencing the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

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