At Shangri-La Dialogue, war in Ukraine and US-China tensions take center stage in India’s absence
Asia’s connection to the war in Ukraine, US-China tensions and maritime security were highlights of the just-concluded first Asian Defense and Security Summit (June 10-12), dialogue of Shangri-La, amid the noticeable absence of an Indian political narrative. in the Indo-Pacific region.
The annual dialogue, named after the Singapore hotel where it is held, is organized by the leading London-based global strategic studies think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), of which I am a senior member. The dialogue, held after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, brought together 32 defense ministers from the Indo-Pacific region as well as military leaders, diplomats, influential experts, commentators and defense industry leaders from 40 countries. During the dialogue, US and Chinese defense ministers met “in person” for the first time; and the IISS was invited to facilitate 127 bilateral meetings between official delegates.
The consequences of the war in Ukraine are felt around the world, including loss of life, rising oil and fertilizer prices, food shortages, supply chain shocks and inflationary pressures; exacerbating the economic pressures of the ongoing pandemic.
Delivering the keynote address, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio reiterated his view that “the Ukraine of today could be East Asia tomorrow” in case the order based on rules in the Indo-Pacific would be illegally flouted, as in the case of Ukraine by Russia. His remarks targeted the possibility of an attack on Taiwan by China, although neither country was named.
Strongly condemning Russia’s aggression and violations of the UN Charter, he called for severe sanctions against Russia to demonstrate the visible consequences of its aggression against Ukraine. This may be due to concerns in some Asian quarters that Chinese President Xi Jinping may have interpreted US President Joe Biden’s decision not to intervene directly in the war in Ukraine as a signal that Washington would not defend Taipei.
France’s new defense minister, Sébastien Lecornu, has stressed that “the problems of the Indo-Pacific are the problems of France”, apparently contradicting an official Indian view that “the problems of Europe were the world problems; but the problems of the world were not the problems of Europe”.
For the first time, a virtual interaction took place with a special address by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who said that “preventive sanctions” should have been taken against Russia before the start of the war. Its significance did not escape delegates in relation to Taiwan. There were no Russian participants in this year’s Shangri-La dialogue.
Clearly aware of some regional concerns about US engagement in Taiwan, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stressed that the United States would maintain a rules-based international order and defend its interests in the region “without flinching”. Stressing the United States’ commitment to a “one China” policy and refusing to support an independent Taiwan, he sharply criticized China’s “more coercive and aggressive approach” to of its territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific and the “tensions with its neighbours”. But Austin maintained the lines of communication were open with Chinese defense leaders.
In response, Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe dismissed “US threats against China”, noting that China would “counterattack if attacked” and “would not hesitate not to retaliate and defeat the aggressor”. In a tone never before heard in the Shangri-La dialogue series, he noted that China would “fight to the end” to prevent the independence of “Taiwan from China”; while affirming that “no one can stop” the reunification of Taiwan.
An influential American expert participating in the dialogue, Dr. Roger Kangas, Dean of the Near East and South Asia Center (NESA) at the United States National Defense University, noted the escalating tensions American-Chinese dialogue in contrast to the Shangri-La dialogue three years ago, with “different narratives about the events and the role each wants to play in the region”.
Although General Wei ignored India in his speech, in response to a question he blamed India for the “friction along the border”, adding: “We found a lot of weapons belonging to the Indian side, they also sent people to the Chinese side of the territory”.
There has been no official Indian response to counter this view.
In contrast, Austin mentioned India’s border tensions with China and said that “India’s growing military capabilities can be a stabilizing force in the region.” While Austin noted the “historic crisis” caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with global and not just European consequences, he stressed that the Indo-Pacific region was “at the heart of American grand strategy”.
In response to a question, General Wei called China’s ties with Russia a “partnership, not an alliance” that “will continue to grow.”
On maritime security, a senior Indian Navy officer, Vice Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta, Head of Eastern Naval Command based in Vishakapatnam, admirably articulated India’s adherence to maritime codes of conduct and the importance of crisis communication. This was based on India’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (1982), which laid the foundation for a rules-based international order at sea. leverage regional dialogue mechanisms and crisis communication strategies. In response to questions, he pointed to improved ties with the US Navy and the “almost permanent” presence of the Chinese Navy in India through its longstanding anti-piracy missions off the Gulf of Aden. Although China’s presence in the Indian Ocean should be monitored, it was “not a major challenge” for the Indian Navy, he concluded.
For a region that sits at the “heart” of India’s foreign and security policy, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it when launching India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific at the dialogue IISS Shangri-La four years ago, the absence of ministerial representation of defense was inexplicable. It was puzzling when two days earlier Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visited Vietnam to expand bilateral defense commitments and sign a memorandum of understanding on mutual logistical support. More so, when a plenary speech by Indian defense ministers at the Shangri-La dialogue would have highlighted India’s leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region at a time of a post-COVID new world order. is emerging. A missed strategic opportunity for defense diplomacy.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.