The Annual Jamboree of global defence leaders at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore is much more than just a talkathon. Amidst the wining and dining, and in the chambers and corridors, policymakers and thought leaders get the opportunity to interact with one another intensely over a weekend. They try to make sense of how the regional critical security and related issues are evolving, against the backdrop of a rising Asia and a burgeoning superpower competition in what is now being increasingly viewed as the “Indo-Pacific Region”. Over the last several years the United States seemed to enjoy a walk-over vis-à-vis the agenda in the absence of senior Chinese protagonists. It invariably resulted in a spot of “China-bashing”, and a consequent erosion of its significance, the high quality of discourses notwithstanding.
All that changed during this year’s dialogue, between May 31 and June 2. The not-quite sleeping dragon decided that it was about time it showed up to spew some fire to display its potential might. So Beijing despatched a very high official, indeed its Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe to take on the US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan. On the verbal battlegrounds of Shangri La, it was finally, the Greek meets Greek, and as is said when that happens, then comes the tug of war!
The Shangri La Dialogue provides for some superb conferencing. The London-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies organises it and the Singapore government provides the deliberations a gentle stewardship so as to be able to yield fruitful results. If in the past China’s absence caused the upshot to appear somewhat lopsided, this time round Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself took care to lay down the ground-rules of the discussions in a masterful analysis of the regional and global situation at a post-dinner tour d’horizon on the opening night.
He did not fight shy of the problems that dot the world in our times, offered some pragmatic solutions while circumspectly avoiding taking sides. He concluded by urging: “we must work together to maximise the chances that countries will have the wisdom and courage to work together…will have the wisdom and courage to make the right choices, opt for openness and integration, and so preserve and expand the progress we have made together.”
It was not that Singapore was simply punching above its weight. His rational words calmed nerves. They helped to round off the sharp edges of the inevitable US-China debate that was at the core of this year’s programme.
Nonetheless, some sparks did fly. A restrained Shanahan, without mentioning China, iterated that States that “eroded rules-based order”, were a “threat to the region”. Despite the perplexity of some in the audience, who could have thought the remarks could have applied equally to Shanahan’s own country, the US, Wei Fenghe accepted the fact that China was the target. Almost coinciding with Shanahan’s speech, The US Department of Defence released a report referring to China as a “revisionist power” seeking regional hegemony in the near, and global pre-eminence in the longer term.
To many analysts though, it could have seemed like the pot calling the kettle black. For didn’t it resemble the pattern of behaviour of the US itself, not so long ago? So, is the US now looking to inherit the pristine purity of behaviour of the proverbial Caesar’s wife? In a laconic riposte worthy of Julius Caesar’s famous “I came I saw I conquered” message, Wei Fenghe shot back at his perceived rival: “A talk, yes? A fight, ready. Bully us? No Way”!
He reiterated that China was ready to fight the US to the end, but confined the rhetoric, for now at least, to the sphere of trade! He might as well have quoted the old limerick: “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too!” For the participants of other countries, the apprehension understandably was the same that faced the grass beneath the elephants, doomed to be trampled upon, whether the giant animals made love or locked war!
Happily the prospects of a war are far beyond the rim of the saucer. The US and China, much unlike the US and the Soviet Union of the yesteryears are much too interdependent. They are the largest trade partners, and China owns an estimated USD 1.18 trillion US debt (as of April last year, though the figures pared down somewhat since). Though strategically the US is far ahead in terms of conventional and nuclear hardware, China already possesses the capacity to wreak absolutely unacceptable damage upon the US. Also, while Soviet leaders, not just Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, but also those that followed were committed to destroying the capitalist system and building anew, the Chinese took the pragmatic line of working to change within the system and weaving the differences philosophically within the dialectical process.
Despite the oft-cited mention of the Thucydides syndrome, named after the Greek historian who said when Athens grew strong there was great fear in Sparta, serious current thinkers have pretty much ruled out an all-out war. In a recent tome entitled “Destined for War; Can America and China escape the Thucydides Trap?” the strategic writer Graham Wallace argued that, yes, they can. What he meant was “yes, they must”. He stated that research showed such avoidance was possible, but it called for imaginative but painful steps.
But this does not mean we are not headed for a long-term Sino-US rivalry, within the model of a rising power challenging a sated one. The trade gap with China has, for the US, grown to a record USD 419.2 billion. Competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific region, where the powers collide directly is fierce. The age of the US as the only hyper-power was short lived. The two current superpowers, led by both Mr Donald Trump and Mr Xi Jinping are subordinating multilateral institutions to suit their purposes. The global state-system is now very much the “anarchical Society” as described by the theoretician Hedley Bull in a classic study of the same name.
In a situation where each State is more or less on its own, the need for each to focus on its own security and development increases manifold. For a country like Bangladesh it would entail expanding product and services markets through innovative initiatives like bilateral and pluri-lateral Free Trade Agreements, rather than say, being dependent on global bodies like the World Trade Organization. Also, bolstering its own defences with smart procurements rather than depend on the platitudinous resolutions of the United Nations. Perhaps the easy life of a policymaker is a thing of the past. It amply proves the veracity of the axiom that fitness to survive perhaps must remain a perennial societal goal.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and a former Foreign Advisor in a Caretaker Government in Bangladesh.