The Shangri-La, a luxury hotel in Singapore, touts itself as an oasis of calm and relaxation. On June 2 to 4, however, it was the site of dueling narratives between the top military officials of the United States and China—Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu. Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, both officials warned of the growing danger of conflict in the region, but each blamed the other side for causing the trouble. In their speeches, moreover, each official laid out their vision of the emerging strategic landscape in Asia, with Austin delineating US plans for the military encirclement of China and Li describing China’s efforts to resist US “hegemonism.” Put together, these two speeches suggest that we’ve entered a period of increased tension and strife in Asia, with a strong likelihood of violent conflict.
Both Austin and Li were very careful in their use of language at the Shangri-La event, rarely mentioning the opposing country by name or issuing explicit military threats. But the scope and intent of their words were unmistakable. For his part, Secretary Austin outlined a grand strategy to surround China with US military bases and US-armed allies. Minister Li, speaking after Austin, spoke of China’s preference for peaceful relations with Washington, but indicated that it would respond to any unjustified US provocations—including over Taiwan—with unrestrained military force.
Accusing China of “bullying” its neighbors and endangering the free flow of commerce in the western Pacific, Austin promised a vigorous US riposte. “We’ll continue to stand by our allies and partners as they uphold their rights. We will maintain our vigorous and responsible presence across the Indo-Pacific. And we’ll continue to work to ensure that no one country [i.e., China] can assert control over shared waterways.” He then outlined the steps the United States was taking to bolster its military presence in the region and to build an intertwined network of allies committed to China’s encirclement.
As part of this effort, the Pentagon will deploy a newly constituted Marine combat unit in Japan, the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment. This unit, described by Austin as “the most advanced formation in the US Marine Corps,” will be positioned in Japan to help defend US allies in the “First Island Chain”—the string of islands stretching southward from Japan to Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo.
Additional US forces, Austin indicated, will be stationed at Darwin in northern Australia, including “rotations of fighters and bomber task forces, as well as future rotations of ground and maritime capabilities.” Under the recently signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, moreover, US forces will enjoy increased access to bases in that country, including to some in the northern island of Luzon, just 100 miles or so from Taiwan.
Along with efforts to bolster its own military presence in the region, the United States is, Austin continued, “also deeply committed to ensuring that our allies and partners have the capabilities that they need to deter aggression and to increase stability.” This entails increased arms aid to such long-standing allies as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, along with an expanded program of joint military exercises and information-sharing with other allies and partners, including Australia, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
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As Austin explained, a key goal of US strategy is to entwine all of these countries in US-led multilateral security arrangements designed to “[bring] the region closer together to help keep it free and open, and secure”—the Pentagon’s way of saying to contain China. These include, for example, the US/Japan/South Korea intelligence-sharing arrangement—recently restored under US pressure (despite deep South Korean misgivings of cooperation with Tokyo)—and the newly established (as of August 2022) US/Australia/Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue.
Then there’s the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) partnership, constructed around a September 2021 US-UK pledge to provide Australia with nuclear propulsion technology for a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Along with the submarine deal, AUKUS entails trilateral cooperation in intelligence-sharing and the military exploitation of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
Even more extensive in scope is the so-called “Quad,” or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Increased military cooperation via the Quad is a major priority of the Biden administration, as Austin noted. “We’ve also made some important strides forward with Australia, India, and Japan through the Quad,” he stated. “All four Quad partners will participate in Exercise Malabar [a major annual naval exercise] for the first time this summer.”
When questioned at the Singapore event, Austin insisted that these efforts do not constitute a US drive to create a NATO-like military structure in Asia. “We’re not trying to create a NATO in the Indo-Pacific,” he insisted. But viewing all this from outside, it is very difficult for a neutral observer—let alone for Chinese officials—to interpret all this as anything but the foundation for precisely that. And even if the United States never establishes a formal Asian alliance system under its leadership, these intertwined arrangements appear to constitute an Asian simulacrum of NATO.
And this brings us to Defense Minister Li’s comments at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
No doubt Li’s speech was written by senior Chinese officials in Beijing before he traveled to Singapore and heard Austin’s presentation, but his comments nevertheless represent a full-blown response to Washington’s stance on Asia and China. In essence, Li argued that China only seeks peace, stability, and prosperity in the region, while it is the United States—through its intrusive actions identified above—that is responsible for all the instability and discord.
“People cannot but ask these questions: Who is disrupting peace in the region? What are the root causes of chaos and instability?” Without naming names, Li suggested that the answer was not hard to identify: While China has pursued the path of peace, “some country is expanding military bases, reinforcing military presence and intensifying arms race in the…or such practices which it often resorts to are designed to make enemy/confrontation, fuel the fire, and fish in troubled waters.” (This English translation of Li’s comments was provided by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the sponsor of the Shangri-La Dialogue, and may not constitute an accurate representation of the Chinese original.)
Li also accused the US of “hegemonism,” or coercing local powers into joining its NATO-like enterprise in Asia—a path, he suggested, that can only result in crisis and conflict. “The true design of pushing for NATO-like military alliances in the Asia-Pacific is to hold countries in the region hostage and play up conflict and confrontation that will only [plunge] the region into a whirlpool of division, disputes and conflicts.” Local powers, he asserted, should reject such coercion by the US and disallow the formation of military blocs in the region.
But the greatest danger, Li indicated, arises from US efforts to support efforts by some in Taiwan to sever the island from China, despite its historic and legal ties to the mainland. “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan, and how to resolve the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese to decide,” he asserted. By providing arms and military training to the Taiwanese, the US is encouraging separatist forces on the island—currently led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—and thus is responsible for the current tension in the area. “People across world can see clearly that the root cause of tensions across the Taiwan Strait, are the DPP authorities soliciting foreign support for independence, and some foreign forces attempt to contain China with Taiwan and interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
Further US interference of this sort, Li suggested, can only result in war. “China must be and will be reunified…. We will strive for the prospects of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts, but we make no promise to renounce the use of force. If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will not hesitate for a second. We will fear no opponents and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, regardless of any cost.”
Both Austin and Li indicated that a continued failure to resolve fundamental differences between China and the United States over Taiwan could lead to war, with potentially catastrophic outcomes. “Make no mistake,” Austin declared, “conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating.” (Austin might have been thinking of recent war games conducted by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, suggesting that any US-China conflict over Taiwan would result in massive losses on both sides and likely lead to nuclear escalation.) Nevertheless, both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to policies of mutual hostility and confrontation, and the use of force where needed to safeguard national interests.
Reading through these two speeches, it is hard to discern any space for compromise and conflict avoidance. As during the Cold War between the US and the USSR, each side views itself as blameless for the rise in mutual hostilities and lays all the blame on the other side. Both sides also seem to rule out negotiated solutions while emphasizing the use of force.
Two vital questions arise from this assessment. First, will the US drive to encircle China with a network of US-led security arrangements result in Chinese disengagement and restraint, as suggested by Austin, or in greater tension and strife, as suggested by Li? Second, can a potential US-China conflict in Asia be confined to the conventional, non-nuclear level, or would it inevitably escalate to a nuclear conflagration? History is not very optimistic on the first matter, and it could prove difficult to remain hopeful on the second.