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Is Beijing covering an iron fist with a silk glove in Southeast Asia?

Chinese defense minister will likely play nice at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit

| China
At this year's Shangri-La event, China will likely present itself as a force for stability in the South China Sea and paint the U.S. as a troublemaker.   © Reuters

For the first time since 2011, China is this weekend sending its defense minister to the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia's top security gathering, in a move that looks like a bid to restore Beijing's strained relations with the region -- and steal a march over the U.S.

General Wei Fenghe is set to come five years after Beijing lashed out at the gathering, accusing the U.S. and Japan of ganging up against China and criticizing them of being "full of hegemony... threat and intimidation."

His expected attendance suggests that Beijing has now decided to return to an event that it has seen as hostile.

Countering the U.S. at a time of deepening strategic competition is one clear motivation. Washington has been among the strongest supporters of the Shangri-La event since it launched in 2002. Former U.S. defense secretaries, including Donald Rumsfeld and Jim Mattis, used the gathering as a platform for underlining U.S. commitment toward Asia and signaling their intentions to stand up to Chinese expansionism.

But this year, however, Washington is sending only the low-profile acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to do the honors. With confidence in the erratic Trump administration plummeting throughout the region, Beijing sees a window of opportunity to signal what it hopes will be a changing of the guard between Washington and Beijing in Southeast Asia.

China has been here before. In 2013, for instance, when a government shutdown kept U.S. President Barack Obama away from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered the keynote address and followed up with a two-week tour through Southeast Asia, dispensing largesse at every stop.

China is equally prone to using coercive tactics to get what it wants. South Korean companies, for instance, felt the brunt of Beijing's wrath after Seoul agreed to deploy a U.S. missile defense system that China found objectionable. Likewise, China's reduced presence threatened the Shangri-La Dialogue's very existence, because Asia's central player essentially wasn't at the table.

But Beijing has also been willing to relent after sufficient time has passed and the right amount of deference has been shown. A year into their standoff, Beijing repaired relations with South Korea after Seoul gave assurances that there would be no further missile defense deployments. Perhaps that point has now been reached in Southeast Asia following Beijing's Shangri-La humiliation in 2014?

Domestic politics too may have played a part. China's military has undergone a huge streamlining in recent years. This reorganization led to the cancellation of China's own version of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Xiangshan Forum, in 2017. But with military reform appearing to be complete and with Xi cementing his position as China's "leader for life" following the removal of presidential term limits, this is a domestically opportune time for China's return to Shangri-La.

It remains possible, of course, that General Wei will come out swinging at Shangri-La with his own barrage of threats and intimidation. Under Xi's strongman rule, Communist cadres will sometimes over-compensate to avoid perceptions of party disloyalty. Addressing the dialogue in 2016, for instance, Admiral Sun Jianguo famously gave a full-blown defense of Beijing's South China Sea policies that mocked America's 'Cold War mentality'.

Yet this is unlikely given Wei's senior status. Xi has undoubtedly charged him with delivering a message of reassurance to the region.

While the U.S. and China seem to be edging ever closer to all-out trade war, Beijing has been quietly mending fences elsewhere. It pledged late last year to negotiate a long-promised "Code of Conduct" for managing disputes in the South China Sea with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Tensions with India, Japan, the Philippines and Australia have also eased. Wei is likely to highlight these shifts, presenting China as a force for stability in the region and painting the U.S. as a troublemaker.

Much in the way that Xi did at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, when he argued -- with more than a little chutzpah -- that his country would be a defender of globalization and economic openness, Wei could portray China as a responsible stakeholder in an Asian security order. His argument will be that it is the U.S. that is ramping up tensions through its military exercises in contested waters, arms sales to Taiwan, a high-risk approach to North Korea and its efforts to drive Huawei out of business.

China under Xi has championed the concept of an Asian security order by and for Asian countries. Wei will likely repeat this mantra. In turn, his U.S. counterpart, Shanahan, will paint China as an assertive authoritarian power disrupting the status quo. As he does, Asia's contested geopolitics will play out in dramatic fashion on the conference platform.

How should Asian states respond to this supercharged strategic environment? Their instincts -- as often seen in groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- will be to avoid taking positions in public and reciting their own well-worn "we don't want to choose" shibboleth. But the avoidance of difficult choices is becoming more challenging in this new phase of great power rivalry.

Evenhanded in public, Asia's leaders will be fretting in private. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong -- who will address the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday evening -- candidly conceded last November, if push comes to shove ASEAN might be forced into choosing one superpower over the other. That process, in turn, could cause the association to fracture, as happened previously when Beijing applied pressure against economically-dependent Laos and Cambodia. Washington too could yet embrace a 'with us or against us' mentality toward Southeast Asia in its growing rivalry with China.

The Shangri-La Dialogue was established to improve dialogue, promote trust and a sense of common cause in the region. It is now a place where we see the incompatible nature of Chinese and American strategic visions vividly on display. Beijing and Washington will take the opportunity of the forum to pitch their goals to the region. The challenge for the rest is to find a way to talk them both back from their current collision course.

Nick Bisley is Head of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University. Brendan Taylor is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. They are both delegates to the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue.

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