Indo-Pacific Watch

Jun 12, 2023

Rifts Are Laid Bare at Singapore Security Forum

Fears about a military escalation between China and the United States dominate the region. Europe’s attempts to garner more support for Ukraine have left Indo-Pacific countries unconvinced.

Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu salutes as he takes the podium to speak at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 4, 2023.
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The rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific were in full view at the region’s main annual defense summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in early June. The focus of this year’s dialogue was very much on the worsening US-China competition, and the almost universal concern that it may escalate and plunge the region—and the world—into an unprecedented crisis. With communication between the two powers on security matters all but broken down, this made for a tense event.

In a demonstration of its growing interest in the region, Europe was well represented, with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and EU High Representative Josep Borrell in attendance, together with the defense ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine. Their presence, however, exposed the gap in priorities and concerns between Western and Indo-Pacific countries. While representatives of the United States criticized China’s ambitions and those from Europe tried to rally support for Ukraine, Indo-Pacific nations focused on the need to preserve stability in their region and to find a way to manage the competition between Washington and Beijing. Europe will have to find a way to address this dissonance if it wants to be seen as a more attractive and reliable partner for the region.

Little Hope for a US-China Thaw in Security Matters

In his first international public appearance, China’s new Defense Minister Li Shangfu made clear that China’s post-Party Congress charm offensive does not extend to the United States. Li declined to meet with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the summit, a signal of the stalemate that will continue until the US lifts Trump-era sanctions on China’s defense minister. Li’s speech was also unusually hostile, dedicating a big chunk of it to criticizing the US and its presence in the region, without ever mentioning it by name.

Washington, meanwhile, seems to be angling for a partial reset with Beijing, seeking meetings with Chinese officials across policy fields. CIA Director Bill Burns was the highest-ranking US official to visit China since 2021, according to reports, with a secret trip to China last month to meet with his counterparts. And Austin gave a more toned-down speech than expected. While he didn’t shy away from criticizing China’s aggressive behavior in the region, he also emphasized the need for “guardrails” to prevent conflicts and for better crisis management mechanisms and communication channels between the two countries’ militaries. Dialogue, he said, is “a necessity, not a reward.”

But calls for reopening military communication channels seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Beijing. When asked about restarting communication, Li said that mutual respect is the prerequisite for dialogue—echoing Beijing’s message that Washington must first change its ways if it wants to stabilize relations. With any hopes of a security thaw between the two powers dashed, and no expectation that either side will change its fundamental policies or approach, US-China competition will remain the key factor shaping dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, even if the expected visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China on June 18 underlines that the Biden administration will keep trying to broaden exchanges with the country.

Indo-Pacific Countries Warn of the Risk of Escalation

Regional countries share the fear of increased military competition. Despite the oft-repeated phrase that war in the Indo-Pacific is not inevitable and should not be seen as a preordained outcome, speeches at the summit revealed a deep concern that the situation in the region is increasingly volatile.

Videos of the near collision between a US and Chinese vessel in the Taiwan Strait after an aggressive maneuver by a Chinese warship just a few days prior would have only reinforced these fears. Without open communication channels between the two sides, this type of scenario could easily lead to accidental escalation, with disastrous consequences for the region and the world. In a sign that its behavior is highly unlikely to change, Beijing stood by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s actions, accusing the US of using freedom of navigation as a pretext to exercise its “hegemony of navigation” and provoke China.

Despite their broad span of priorities and challenges—whether that be the Philippines’ South China Sea dispute or Fiji’s concerns over climate change—finding a way to manage US-China competition so it does not drag the region into a conflict is the top priority for Indo-Pacific nations. Small and medium powers do not want to have to pick sides, but they are aware that they may be forced to do so if the situation worsens or a conflict breaks out. Europe would do well to keep this in mind. Most Indo-Pacific countries welcome Europe’s growing interest and presence in the region, but only as long as its engagement contributes to stability and to tackling their concerns.

Europe’s Linkage Meets Some Resistance

European officials are aware of these expectations. They want Europe to be seen as a more capable, reliable partner for the region, also on security matters. Their speeches, however, demonstrated a certain degree of dissonance with regional priorities. Their statements in support of international law and the rules-based international order as well as calls to protect free trade—in a clear, if indirect, jab at China’s behavior in the South China Sea and around Taiwan—were well received. But the European delegations’ main mission in Singapore was another: to draw an explicit link between Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security, and to rally support for Ukraine among countries that have largely stayed out of the fray after their initial condemnations of Russia’s invasion.

“If Russia wins, the message to revisionist powers around the world will be that aggression and the unprovoked use of military force are acceptable and can be successful also here in the Indo-Pacific,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said. This is a message that resonates with NATO partners and other like-minded countries in the region, such as Japan or Australia. But for many other nations, it is seen as a moralizing argument that asks them to position themselves on a conflict in which they feel they have no direct stake in a way that would damage their own interests and priorities.

These divergences were obvious in European officials’ immediate rejections of a peace plan for Ukraine presented by the Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto. Asking the world not to put blame on either side, his plan called for the creation of a new demilitarized zone and for a UN-backed referendum in occupied areas of the country. Without going into the details of the plan, the idea that a solution to the conflict must be found as soon as possible, even if it requires concessions, is widely shared among countries in the Indo-Pacific and the so-called Global South at large. The backlash from European representatives, however, was swift, with EU High Representative Borrell rejecting what he described as a “peace of surrender.”

Narrowing the Gaps

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue laid bare not only the deepening conflict between the United States and China, but also the gaps in priorities and concerns between European and Indo-Pacific nations. While Europe would like to see more support for Ukraine, this is not a top issue for most regional countries. Preserving peace and stability and finding a way to manage US-China competition is, however.

To enhance its relevance and be seen as a more attractive partner, Europe will have to strike a balance between promoting its own priorities and responding to those of regional partners. This will require a more proactive posture, a demonstration of its long-term sustainable commitment, as well as a willingness to listen to regional concerns and take action even on thorny geopolitical issues. Some progress on this has already been made, but Europe still has a long way to go to make its Indo-Pacific ambitions a reality.

Helena Legarda is lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

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