The Shangri-La Dialogue that was just held in Singapore provides a sense of the direction in which the great powers are taking Asia. It is not a reassuring compass, but one with which Asian nations will have to travel as best and as far as they can.

The tone of the dialogue, Asia's premier defence summit which is now in its 21st edition, was set by Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., who delivered the keynote address. Referring to an escalating maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea, he warned that any Filipino serviceman or citizen killed by a wilful act there would come very close to what the Philippines deems to be an act of war. He had said earlier that any Filipino death caused by aggression by a foreign power in the South China Sea could invoke a defence treaty between the Philippines and the United States.

Should President Marcos have had any qualms about the protective nature of that alliance in the midst of a possible military confrontation with China, they were more than put to rest by US Defence Security Lloyd Austin. Declaring that the "United States can be secure only if Asia is", he said that his country wishes to bring together its strategic alliances and partnerships in Asia into what he termed a "new convergence based on the rule of law.

According to a media report, Mr Austin's comments drew an immediate riposte from a Chinese military delegate on whether the US was planning to build a NATO-like system in the Asia-Pacific region. NATO -- the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - was established in 1949 to provide collective security to capitalist states against the communist challenge from the erstwhile Soviet Union. The strategy the West adopted was that of containment, which was essentially a strategic posture situated between appeasement and war. The appeasement of Germany had led ultimately to World War II, but great-power war was not possible in the Cold War world between the two nuclear-armed powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hence the need for containment. The strategy worked when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 without a single shot being fired at it from the United States.

Today, China fears that the US is mounting a similar international campaign of containment against it. The flashpoint is Taiwan. At the dialogue, Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun blamed external forces of working with separatists to erode prospects of peaceful reunification with Taiwan. Although he did not name America, he blamed it for escalating tensions in Asia, whether in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. He warned what he called hegemonic powers to stay out of the Asia-Pacific.

His message could not have been clearer, coming as it did in the wake of Mr Austin's reiteration of American commitment to Asia. Verbal swords were drawn at the summit although actual blows were not exchanged.

What if those blows are exchanged one day, not in the peaceful precincts of the Shangri-La Hotel, one of Singapore's most iconic travel destinations where the dialogue is held, but in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea?


Asian nations caught between America and China proclaim that they do not wish to choose sides. That is a good position for smaller nations to adopt when they are caught between two global contenders, both of which are important to their economic well-being and military security. It is fair to say that most Asian nations need both the United States and China, for differing reasons and to different degrees no doubt but undeniably so. How can those countries chose sides when their national interests are spread across a global spectrum of which America and China are the two main poles?

Yet, the point is whether countries will be forced to choose. I remember a conversation with a visiting military delegation from an Asian country which is engaged in a balance-of-power tussle with another Asian country. The question was about how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would respond in the event of a serious conflict between the two Asian giants.

"ASEAN does not wish to choose sides," a member of the host organisation said. At this, a young delegate replied: "The point is not whether you wish to choose sides but whether you will have to." He added with a disarming smile: "My country won't force that choice on you but the other side might." Of course, ha ha!

So, what if a choice is forced? The answer would depend on the circumstances surrounding that choice. Which country initiates the particular cycle of violence that necessitates a choice? Which country appears to be working for the overall good of the global commons and which country against it? And, of course - and this is where national responses will diverge - which belligerent country is aligned better than the other one to the national interest of the country being forced to make a choice?

These are platitudes of international relations. But the platitudes are helpful nevertheless because they suggest how the dice might fall in the future.

In the meanwhile, it is not in the national interest of either the United States or China to force a choice on others in anticipation of a coming showdown between the two of them. Most third nations understand that illusions of independence spread by some impressionable Taiwanese politicians should not drive Washington's policy towards China. At the same time, Beijing cannot expect its assertive moves in the South China Sea to not draw the countervailing attention of the United States, whose relations with Taiwan provide it with a viable platform to contain what the Americans and others view as Chinese maritime expansionism.

Hence, it is the status quo that matters. It is an uneasy status quo, but even that situation is better than war. Asia's future is no Shangri-La, but it does not have to be a strategic wasteland, either.

Enayetullah Khan is Editor-in-Chief of the United News of Bangladesh (UNB) and Dhaka Courier.

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