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Shangri-La Dialogue: A Choreographed Display of Power and Diplomacy

Shangri-La Dialogue 2024 brought a mix of good and bad news. Good news first, the defense heads of the US and China finally held face-to-face talks for the first time since late 2022. Bad news? tensions around the South China Sea and Taiwan will continue overshadowing the Asian security landscape.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Adm. Dong Jun on May 31, 2024.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Adm. Dong Jun on May 31, 2024. (Chad J. McNeeley/U.S. Defense Department)

Marcos' Clear-cut Answer to China's Coercion

This year, the limelight of the Shangri-La Dialogue started in the South China Sea. As a keynote speaker of 2024, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr utilized the platform to strengthen his country's position by garnering support from other nations against China's increasingly aggressive and reckless behavior in the South China Sea. Without directly naming China, President Marcos took a high road by elevating the issue to a “vision” level, sending a message to his audience, especially his regional neighbors, that remaining silent or passive is irresponsible. Such indifference will only embolden "illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive actions" that undermine the peaceful, stable, and prosperous vision the region strives for. His message was clear and persuasive: the South China Sea issue is a rule-based matter and a "global" concern, not merely bilateral disputes. Importantly, he drew a line in the sand for his Chinese counterpart, stating, "If a Filipino citizen is killed by a willful act, that, I believe, is very close to what we define as an act of war."

Encounters between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea have escalated in frequency, intensity, and scale. But so have counteractions in words and deeds. In April, the first multinational joint patrol - involving six warships and four aircraft from Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the U.S. (now dubbed as "SQUAD") - was conducted. Exercise Balikatan 2024 was the largest ever. In May, the defense heads from the US, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines met in Hawaii for the second time. Two weeks later, Manila and Tokyo carried on this momentum by announcing their most significant maritime security project to date, valued at $507 million. Through this initiative, Japan will finance the construction of five large patrol ships for the Philippine Coast Guard, which are expected to arrive between 2027 and 2028. These events evidence Marcos’ strategy of moving beyond "naming and shaming," calling on allies and friends to proactively deter China's gray zone activities. In light of these developments, Taiwan's newly inaugurated government should consider Marcos’ approach. Remaining reactive is not a solution to limit China's maneuvering room.

Off-stage Discussion Was the Main Course

Another spotlight was on the fringe of the stage – the first in-person meeting between China's Defense Minister, Dong Jun, and his American counterpart, Lloyd Austin. The last time defense chiefs from the two nations met in person was in November 2022, when Austin held talks with Wei Fenghe, then China’s defense minister, in Cambodia. The shift from a mere courteous handshake last year to actual discussions this year was seen as a positive step. The revival of military communication was seen as part of ongoing efforts to stabilize relations following the meeting between Xi and Biden last November, offering temporary relief to Asian countries concerned about rising tensions. But the symbolic significance of this 75-minute meeting surely outweighs their tangible outcomes. For one thing, the primary role of China's defense minister is military diplomacy, not command authority in combat. So, the next to watch is whether the INDO-PACOM and the PLA Eastern Theater Command will resume communication. Both the U.S. and China aim to prevent the escalation of tensions, but they are also prepared to accept a certain degree of friction. Divergences regarding Taiwan and South China Sea issues remain apparent, and the nature of the relationship - competition - is unlikely to change.

Dong Jun’s Debut Show

In his speech, Minister Dong portrayed the U.S. as an outsider and a disruptor of regional security and prosperity in the region. Implicitly, yet unmistakably, he identified the Philippines' role in what Beijing views as U.S. efforts aimed at containing China. His rhetoric likewise took a hawkish tone on Taiwan, asserting that the Taiwan question is solely a matter of China's internal affairs and warning that any attempts to separate Taiwan from China would result in "self-destruction." Of particular note was his emphasis on military diplomacy, reflecting his extensive experiences in planning military exercises. It is evident from the content of his speech that future efforts in this domain will be considerably more active. He outlined plans to enhance defense exchanges and cooperation with countries, with a keen focus on regions such as Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. These regions, in Beijing’s perspective, are pivotal arenas where strengthened ties extending beyond mere diplomatic forums are imperative.

Overall, Dong continued to embody the tenets of wolf-warrior diplomacy, maintaining a robust stance while offering reassurances that China is open to cooperation – but under the condition that its core interests remain unviolated. To be sure, his speech notes and interactions with foreign media were meticulously choreographed, reflecting a deliberate messaging strategy aimed at projecting strength while leaving room for diplomatic engagement.

Different Audiences, Different Messaging

Dong's discourse resonated with an international audience, particularly “wait-and-see” countries without aligning firmly with either camp. His message projected China's expansive worldview onto the global stage, advocating for a broader understanding of security dynamics, fortification against external interference, and the enhancement of digital governance frameworks. In contrast, Austin's address was tailored for the audience of Indo-Pacific allies, underlining the enduring centrality of the Indo-Pacific within U.S. strategic calculus. He meticulously enumerated collaborative endeavors with allies over the past three years, akin to tallying marks on a scoreboard. Emphasizing a transformative shift from a hub-and-spoke model to a multifaceted, complementary security architecture, Austin articulated a vision of evolving alliances in the Indo-Pacific theater.

In essence, Dong's speech was a call for a new global order, while Austin's words were a reaffirmation of existing alliances and strategies. Both speeches, however, reflect the fluid nature of regional security architecture and the ongoing strategic competition between China and the U.S

What’s Next?

The Shangri-la dialogue marks the start of a busy season of military exercises. The biennial exercise, Valiant Shield, begins on June 7, marking the first participation of Japan's Self-Defense Forces. RIMPAC 2024 exercise, involving 29 countries and themed "Partners: Integrated and Prepared," will begin in the Hawaiian Islands on June 26. The first US-JP-ROK trilateral multi-domain exercise, "Freedom Edge," is also expected this summer. Meanwhile, if, when, and how China's Joint Sword-2024A exercise will take place in its B form is yet to be determined. In the face of these exercises, and continually growing tensions regionwide, the efficacy of a 75-minute conversation between Secretary Austin and Minister Dong remains to be seen.


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