China and US should seize the opportunity of Shangri-La Dialogue for military talks amid tensions

May 31, 2024
View of the main entrance of the Shangri-La Hotel host of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Chinese Minister of National Defence Dong Jun is set to visit Singapore from May 31 to June 2 to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue at the Shangri-La Hotel.

The U.S. Department of Defence has announced that U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin will meet with Chinese Minister of National Defence Dong Jun during the Dialogue, marking another communication between the two defence ministers since their video call last month. The event is expected to host over 550 representatives from defence and security institutions from more than 40 countries, highlighting the forum’s significance in addressing military and security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. The Shangri-La Dialogue is crucial in maintaining military dialogue between China and the United States.

China-US relations have deteriorated in recent years as the United States has intensified economic restrictions on China. In the military domain, the United States has grown increasingly insecure and views China as a military challenge. This perception is influenced by various factors, including China’s comprehensive rise, which the U.S. sees as a challenge to its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. fears that these advancements could disrupt the existing military balance and threaten its regional interests.

The US has been strengthening its containment of China in the Asia-Pacific region through a series of “mini-multilateral” frameworks. In Northeast Asia, the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea held a summit at Camp David in 2023, bringing a trilateral military alliance closer to reality. In the South China Sea, the United States and the Philippines resumed joint military exercises in 2023, which had been suspended, and signed a new defence cooperation agreement allowing the US military to use more military bases in the Philippines. During the 2024 military exercises, the US deployed medium-range missile systems on the Philippine island of Luzon for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Beyond the region, the United States has also strengthened the trilateral security partnership AUKUS with Australia and the United Kingdom, aiming to introduce NATO into the Asia-Pacific. From China’s perspective, the United States’ regional military strategy in the Asia-Pacific is to gradually connect its alliance agreements with regional countries, forming a collective military system similar to NATO, thereby creating a confrontation between camps.

However, the more tense the relationship, the more critical the dialogue between China and the United States at the Shangri-La Dialogue becomes. The absence of dialogue can lead to dangerous assumptions and miscalculations, increasing the risk of unintended escalations and conflicts. The current tensions in China-U.S. military relations are evident in the South China Sea, where the US has been conducting more frequent military drills with the Philippines and countries outside the region, which China perceives as provocative. These actions by the U.S. are a significant factor contributing to the potential for regional conflicts, highlighting the urgency of high-level military dialogue between the two countries.

According to the agenda released on the International Institute for Strategic Studies website, the conference’s organiser, this year’s plenary sessions are divided into seven sections, covering topics such as strengthening crisis management in competition and challenges to the cross-regional security order. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will also attend and deliver a speech at the dialogue following recent friction between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. It is foreseeable that there will be many debates during this dialogue. However, debates can sometimes be beneficial, while silence is dangerous. As Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stated at the opening ceremony of the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2023, dialogue serves as a necessary “guardrail” between nations, and “the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze” poses greater risks.

Although competition between China and the United States is inevitable, the dialogue provides a platform for both countries to express their views, reduce misunderstandings, and explore potential areas of cooperation. Through candid discussions, even if they involve debates, both countries can better understand each other’s perspectives and strive to find common ground.

Considering the differences in strategic interests, it must be acknowledged that the path to improving China-US military relations will be challenging. However, the Shangri-La Dialogue – successfully held 20 times since its inception in 2002, has rapidly expanded in scale and has become one of the most influential multilateral platforms for discussing Asia-Pacific security – could be a crucial starting point for both countries to engage in meaningful dialogue, manage competition, and prevent direct conflicts.

As the world closely watches the interactions between China and the United States, both nations must seize this opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to communicate and work towards a more stable and secure future for the Asia-Pacific region. In the current situation, China and the United States should leverage this vital platform to enhance understanding, reduce misjudgments, explore opportunities for cooperation, and jointly contribute to stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

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