Hard Truths and Hidden Gems at Shangri-La

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers the keynote address at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue

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This weekend I finally had the chance to sit down and read the collected transcripts of the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue. This year’s round of the Dialogue has garnered much more media attention than usual. The coverage has focused on the speeches delivered by Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, Chuck Hagel, Unites States Secretary of State, and Wang Guanzhong, Lieutenant General and the Deputy Chief of Staff for the People’s Liberation Army. Secretary Hagel’s remarks, in particular, were more pointed than is usual for a multilateral forum of this type, and by explicitly calling China out by name they represent a departure from the more conciliatory rhetoric that has defined Washington’s approach to China for most of the last decade.
Most of the coverage and analysis has centered on these three addresses. This is a shame. It is appropriate to give official pronouncements the attention they are due, but to read these exclusively is to miss the most insightful remarks of the Dialogue. Much has been said, for example, about Lt. General Wang’s official response to Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel, but I was much more struck by the impromptu  exchange between Hagel and a different Chinese general during the former’s “Question and Answer” session the night before: 

Major General Yao Yunzhu, Director, Center for China-America Defense Relations and Research Fellow, Academy of Military Science, People’s Liberation Army

Thank you. Thank you, Secretary Hagel, for your very powerful and straightforward speech.

My question is: do you consider that nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands in 2014 a consolidation of status quo in East China Sea or a unilateral challenge of the status quo? And do you consider sovereignty is equal to administrative, administration, because your position, the US position, is to take no position of sovereignty, but your defence treaty covers the disputed Diaoyu Islands, because it is under the administration of Japan?

And when a US ally in the region comes into conflict or a clash over a disputed territory, the United States has repeatedly declared its defence commitment or declared, defined, clarified that the defence treaty covers the disputed matter. Do you think it is a sort of threat of force, coercion or intimidation?

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS
Thank you.

Major General Yao Yunzhu, Director, Center for China-America Defense Relations and Research Fellow, Academy of Military Science, People’s Liberation Army
I have a last one, a last question.

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS
No, but I think –

Major General Yao Yunzhu, Director, Center for China-America Defense Relations and Research Fellow, Academy of Military Science, People’s Liberation Army 
I have a last question about ADIZ. There are some 20 countries in the world which have set up ADIZ. Most of them are US alliances and the ADIZ had been set up 60 years ago during the Cold War. What international law did the US apply to when they set up their ADIZ? What international organisation had the United States asked for permission or what country had the United States consulted to before they set up its ADIZ? So what international law has China violated in setting up an ADIZ in East China Sea? And why do you think that the US practice –

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS
General –

Major General Yao Yunzhu, Director, Center for China-America Defense Relations and Research Fellow, Academy of Military Science, People’s Liberation Army
– and the practice of its alliance of ADIZ is the international norm that every country in the world should apply to? (Color emphasis added)  [1]

I cannot summarize the common Chinese perception of American hypocrisy and perfidy better than Major General Yao does here. Secretary Hagel’s answer was a tad disappointing; he manages to sidestep General Yao’s real questions with the sort of meaningless wish-wash politicians everywhere use when they want to dodge public commitments they are not prepared to make. This shouldn’t be too surprising–there was not a speaker at the conference who answered any differently. It was not the speaker’s answers that make the Q&A session’s valuable, but the nature of the questions they were given.

Here are two other examples from the same session:

Tadakazu Kimura, Chief Executive Officer and President, the Asahi Shimbun

Thank you very much, Mr Secretary and Dr Chipman.

It is no doubt that the United States’ presence in the Asia-Pacific region is indispensable, as a strategic counterweight. President Obama assures the US engagement is in the region as a strategic rebalance. However, the question we face is in reality how long can the US afford to continue to engage in the vision, given the current serious fiscal condition? My concern is the US suggests a power projection in the region could tip the power balance [Inaudible] and transform the geopolitical landscape here. Consequently, do you think Japan should shoulder a much heavier burden, not only in the non-military facets, but also in the military operation field as a partner of the US–Japan alliance? Thank you very much……

Lieutenant General (Retd) P.K. Singh, Director, United Service Institution of India

Coming to my question, I think we are seeing a little bit of assertive, not a little bit, assertive behaviour by China and we will have some fait accompli presented to us. Whether the fait accompli is on the land or on the sea, it is difficult to reverse. And we can keep talking in the various fora, nothing will change. So my question is, sir, how do you revert the changed status quo back? Is the architecture adequate that exists here today and, if not, what should we do? Thank you, Secretary. (color emphasis added) [2]

The questions are direct and–as far as anything coming from a think tank fellow or government official is concerned–succinct. They have to be. If they are to ask their question in the thirty seconds allotted and try to get a meaningful answer in return, the questioners must avoid politcobabble and speak with clarity and candor. That none of these questions are considered “official” statements further lowers the costs of this candor. Question time is the one public event at Shangri-La where the attendees must speak their mind. If you wish to see how the policy making and opinion shaping elites of each nation perceive recent developments in the region, they are not a bad place to start.

The United States’ Contribution to Regional Stability: Q&A
Questions Addressed to: Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of Defense
Shangri-La Dialogue2014 1st Plenary Session (31 May 2014)

Major Power Perspectives on Peace and Security in the Asia-Pacific: Q&A
Questions Addressed to Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, People’s Liberation Army, and Anatoly Antonov, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense
Shangri-La Dialouge 4th Plenary Session (31 May 2014)


[1] Quoted from International Institute for Strategic Studies,  “The United States’ Contribution to Regional Stability: Q&A,” Shangri-La Dialogue 1st Plenary Session (31 May 2014).

[2] Ibid.

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