By Lynn Kuok
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had an unenviable task at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue officially known as the IISS Asia Security Summit, which ran from May 31 to June 2 in Singapore.
The main purpose of Hagel’s first trip to Asia as Secretary of Defense was to demonstrate how the administration was following through on its policies to “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Allies and partners in the region needed to be convinced that the United States would stay its course, despite budget cuts and events in the Middle East and elsewhere threatening to sorely test U.S. resolve.
But Hagel also had another—some say competing—objective: to persuade China that the rebalance is not aimed at containing the country’s meteoric rise.
To what extent did Hagel achieve these objectives?
To U.S. allies and partners, Hagel could offer little by way of new deployments or policy. Instead, he showed how the United States is starting to put its money where its mouth is through military investment, strengthening bilateral relationships (including with Myanmar), and supporting the development of effective regional institutions. In this vein, Hagel extended an invitation to the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers to meet in Hawaii next year—causing some consternation amongst the Chinese delegation.
Hagel eloquently wove his personal story with that of U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific. “The first ocean I ever saw was the Pacific,” he recounted, “and I learned that U.S. security was tied to the security of others in this region.” The Vietnam War, he revealed, showed him “how important it would be for America to engage wisely in Asia.”
All this went some way towards reassuring allies and partners, who were closely gauging his level of personal commitment to Asia. They will undoubtedly, however, continue to observe what the United States says and does.
In respect of China, Hagel reiterated that the U.S. “welcomes and supports a prosperous and successful China.” He praised its progress, together with ASEAN, in establishing hotlines for managing maritime incidents and starting talks on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Cyber security, however, was pointedly raised as an issue. Some cyber intrusions, Hagel alleged, “appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military.”
The Chinese went away unconvinced that U.S intentions are benign. This was not because they had been excluded from the invitation list to Hawaii, nor even because of suggestions that Beijing had a hand in cyber hacking. The problem was pre-existing. As Major General Yao Yunzhu, Director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, asserted categorically during the Q&A session, “US officials have on several occasions clarified that the rebalance is not against China. However, China is not convinced.”
It would be wrong to conclude that the United States achieved its goal of completely reassuring its allies and partners, even if it had failed to persuade China that it is not seeking to contain it. The two goals are often viewed as competing, but they are in fact potentially complementary. Reassuring China also reassures America’s allies and partners; failure to convince China, therefore, arguably undermines the extent to which countries in the region are made to feel secure by a U.S. presence.
Governments in Asia worry about Sino-U.S. relations. They are more likely to be comforted by U.S. presence if the United States can demonstrate that it is able to successfully manage its often tense relationship with China. While the United States provides the region with a security umbrella, it is China—ASEAN’s largest trade partner—that is rainmaker in a part of the world hungry for growth. Any conflict, or even threat of conflict, between the two behemoths bodes ill. Many countries in the region are loath to take sides. Even those with clear alliances have more to gain if Sino-U.S. relations are cordial.
President Obama is meeting his Chinese counterpart at the Sunnylands resort in California from June 7 to 8. Cyber security is said to be at the top of his agenda. This issue is undeniably important. However, focusing on it risks frittering away an historic opportunity to alter the course of the single most important relationship for decades to come.
Rocky relations between the United States and China have been less about the actions each country has taken, and more about how such actions are perceived and interpreted. The two leaders must emerge from their days together with a better understanding of each other, their respective national interests and motivations, and a consensus on how to move relations forward. China joining the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal is one possible way. Given rising nationalism and distrust on the ground, the two leaders should also emerge with the ability to convincingly convey to their respective publics the bona fides of the other. This will help ensure that public sentiment does not determine foreign policy.