Photo from Xinhua.
Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy offers three theories as to why China did not show up at the 11th Asia Security Summit, aka the Shangri-La Dialogue, which just took place in Singapore, despite Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie having taken part at the forum last year and engaged participants “robustly”:
One theory is that China’s impending internal political transition is causing senior Chinese officials to avoid public forums where they might be forced to make comments that could hurt them domestically.
Another theory states that China concluded after last year’s event that the forum too easily becomes a space for regional medium sized powers to gang up on China. A third theory is that China is trying to send a message that it opposes regional multilateral forums that include the United States and wants to establish that China’s relationship with its neighbors is not an issue it wants to discuss with Washington in the room.
When pressed by Rogin on China’s no-show at the conference, this was US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s response:
“We’re not naïve about the relationship and neither is China. But we also both understand that there really is no alternative but to engage and to improve our communications and improve our relationships,” he said. “That’s’ the kind of mature relationship we need to ultimately have with China.”
Meanwhile, China Daily correspondent Zhang Haizhou, who did attend the conference, said he was labelled a “traitor” by random netizens when he predicted a “de-escalation” of the China-Philippine conflict over Huangyan Island/Scarborough Shoal. Here’s how he summed up proceedings at the forum:
No saber-rattling rhetoric was heard over the past three days. Attendants at the summit chose to be rational and handled the discussions about the issue quite cautiously.
De-escalating, as Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen mentioned several times in the final session, is the key word this time.
There was some speculation that the Chinese delegation, headed by Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, vice-president of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing, would be “besieged” during the summit for the Huangyan Island dispute, which began in April.
But the atmosphere was actually “much better than expected”, according to Ren, who said the broad consensus reached those attending was “dialogue is better than confrontation; talks are better than fighting”.
The message from Ren, who didn’t wear his military uniform when meeting reporters on the sidelines of the summit, highlights the Chinese army’s coolheaded restraint toward South China Sea disputes.