By Phuong Nguyen
The annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore has become a highly regarded venue where regional leaders lay out or explain their countries’ policies. This year’s meeting is important for two reasons. First, U.S. policy planners have wanted to use it as part of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s efforts to roll out the next phase of the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Second, with heightened tensions between the United States and China in the South China Sea, the dialogue is a chance for regional countries to voice their perspectives. Singapore, in particular, will take up the mantle of country coordinator between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) later this year.
In his opening address, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong reaffirmed what is on the mind of most Southeast Asian countries, including those that are claimants in the South China Sea dispute: regional governments want U.S.-China relations to stay on a positive course. The narrative on China in Washington has hardened in the past few months – with good reason – over Beijing’s reclamation activities and militarization of features in the disputed Spratly Islands and repeated well-publicized warnings by Chinese navy radio operators telling a U.S. P-8 to leave an area near Subi Reef in the South China Sea. Many believe that a more forceful U.S. response will compel China to back down to some extent.
Days before Shangri-la, Carter made clear that the United States will maintain its strategic interests in these waters by “flying, sailing, and operating” everywhere on the globe as international law allows. A number of U.S. lawmakers have also called for the U.S. Pacific Command to disinvite China from the biannual Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world’s largest multilateral naval exercise.
While a more resolute U.S. approach is good news, Southeast Asian countries are not without concern that recent developments could gradually lead Washington to assert itself more militarily into the South China Sea dispute, thus risking going head to head against Beijing in this strategic theatre.
For many in the region, there is a fine line between the United States spearheading efforts to keep the region’s waters calm and turning the South China Sea into a focal point of a big-power rivalry. Understanding what is at stake, Carter has pledged to promote a “regional approach to maritime security” during his trip to Vietnam and India following Shangri-La. But, as Lee said, “actions provoke reactions,” and as a result, more tensions and bad outcomes can ensue – either by design or by accident – if the present dynamic continues.
The Singapore leader warned against a scenario in which the Pacific Ocean would be carved up between the two powers, each with its own sphere of influence and shutting smaller countries out. Lee’s concern has been echoed before by other Southeast Asian government officials, and as Washington works to build capacity for regional partners and reposition U.S. forces to the area, it may want to keep in mind that striking a balanced U.S. military posture in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia will be extremely crucial to regional stability going forward. No Southeast Asian country wants to choose sides between the United States and China, or be caught in the middle between the two.
Lee’s message to China was unequivocal: A stable regional order – assuming that is what China also desires – requires consent and legitimacy in the international order, and cannot be maintained just by superior force. More broadly, he alluded to the need for China to walk the walk, rather than simply talking the talk or imposing its will on others in the region.
Beijing has called on regional countries not to let disputes in the South China Sea affect China-ASEAN cooperation in other areas, as it seeks to place greater priority on relations with its immediate neighbors and build a planned Maritime Silk Road that will go through Southeast Asia. At the same time, Beijing has held back the process of negotiating a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea with ASEAN, making it increasingly hard even for countries with which it has no disputes to perceive Chinese power as benign. The joint statement by ASEAN leaders at a summit in Kuala Lumpur last month, in which the grouping’s leaders issued their strongest language in the history of regional summits in reference to the South China Sea, is an indicator of that sentiment.
There is no straightforward solution to the South China Sea puzzle. It will take the coordinated efforts of the State Department, the Pentagon, the Pacific Command, and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as between the U.S. and regional governments, to turn the current situation into one that is more manageable and sustainable over time.
Lee’s messaging was crystal clear. Regional partners welcome a stronger U.S. stance, but they do not expect Washington to fix the problem instantaneously or want it to overplay its presence.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.