China, US Keep Their Defenses Up at Asian Security Conference

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Dean Cheng, senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, has been in Singapore, where he was a guest at the region’s premier security conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue.

With the close of the events here in Singapore, Southeast Asia and regional security analysts are busily mulling over this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. The Dialogue is attended by defense ministers and senior defense officials from across the region. This year’s Dialogue included not only U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the deputy chief of staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, but defense ministers from Australia, Japan, the UK and South Korea, among many others. The Dialogue is a major venue for announcing key policy decisions and expressing major security concerns and views.

A number of issues were discussed at this year’s Dialogue, including the rise of ISIS and North Korean nuclear development, but discussion focused on China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. Virtually every panel had both comments and questions about China’s actions and national responses and interpretations of them. Speakers from across the region expressed their concerns about the potential for crisis and confrontation as did defense ministers from the UK and Germany and the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. A French delegate revealed that a French naval task force transited the Paracel Islands to underscore the importance of freedom of navigation. The Chinese themselves took the opportunity at every panel session to ask a question that clearly defended their actions.

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China and the United States did not engage in sharp rhetoric with each other, though. Indeed, the two sides both seemed to deliberately adopt a more subdued tone, marking a sharp contrast with last year’s Dialogue.

But the Chinese delegation, and the Peoples Liberation Army representative, Admiral Sun, gave no indication of any flexibility on Beijing’s South China Sea activities; instead, they made clear their unhappiness with U.S. military overflights and naval close approaches to the artificial islands. The U.S., meanwhile, in conjunction with local states, emphasized its opposition to China’s activities and indicated it would continue these flights and approaches. Such are in keeping with the rights all nations have and should continue to exercise in international waters.

This would not be so worrisome if not for the context of Chinese actions. Last week, on the eve of the Dialogue, China released its defense white paper. Adopting a much more pessimistic tone than has been evident in past white papers, the Chinese leadership not only specifically named the United States as a major source of “grave concerns,” but also condemned its air and maritime surveillance activities. Even as the Dialogue was beginning, press reports indicated China already had begun to deploy military forces onto the new artificial islands.

As Washington and Beijing prepare for the Strategic Economic Dialogue later this month, and a summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, it is clear the South China Sea will remain a major focal point for both sides. There are major American interests involved, principally, freedom of the seas, a driver of American foreign policy for more than 200 years.

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