Singapore — The biggest news out of this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue—an annual Asian defense ministers’ conference here—was U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s announcement that Washington will shift its naval power to a 60%-40% balance between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, respectively. But to understand why this made such an impact on attendees, one needs to consider a related piece of news: China’s minister didn’t attend the conference at all.
Last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was notable for the attendance and speech of Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie. That was the first time Beijing sent a ministerial delegate to the Dialogue, one of the most important events on the Asian defense calendar. Any senior-level regional security conference without appropriate Chinese representation leaves an enormous hole in the program. China is at once the most formidable and distrusted Asian great power.
It had looked as though Beijing was finally ready to commit to this conference as befits its growing role in the region. Beijing’s 2011 defense white paper cited participation in multilateral forums such as this one as a way China would build trust in the region.
Not this year. Despite earlier indications that he was eager to again participate General Liang was conspicuously absent in Singapore this weekend. Beijing is pulling back before its participation can even become a trend. And it’s doing so in a way that only draws attention to its own domestic frailties while making the rest of the region increasingly uneasy about China’s intentions.
One theory for China’s nonparticipation was that Beijing wanted to avoid public questioning of or challenges to its assertiveness over claims in the South China Sea. This isn’t convincing. General Liang calmly fielded questions about Chinese policies and behavior in the disputed region from several questioners a year ago. Beijing has consistently used forums such as the Dialogue to reiterate its belief that these disputes should be handled between the disputants themselves, without involvement of outside powers (read: America). Beijing could have used the podium to further advance its line of argument, however self-serving, that American involvement will only exacerbate instability in the South China Sea and between Asian countries.
The official explanation, given to the Dialogue organizers and relayed to the audience, that General Liang was preoccupied with “domestic priorities” is probably closer to the truth. But this still leaves a lot unexplained. Chinese leaders openly admit to the many domestic economic and social challenges they face. Indeed, admission of these challenges is often offered as evidence that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains an inward looking rather than externally focused regime. This is hardly reason for a minister to break a previous commitment.
More likely, an impending leadership transition that is clearly not proceeding smoothly—brought into focus by the Bo Xilai drama which has seen a popular Communist Party chief toppled—has spooked the Party. The appearance of unity is important enough at home, where it is supposed to deter acts such as the 1989 Tiananmen protests that sought to capitalize on apparent internal divisions. But unity is also an important foreign-policy tool.
The appearance of Politburo harmony is used to convince regional democratic capitals that China is ruled by a unified, competent, responsive, and therefore legitimate, regime despite the absence of democratic elections. Chinese state-backed media commentators frequently contrast the divisive and distracted atmosphere of multi-Party polities with the apparently cohesive and focused one-Party policy environment.
It is more than likely that a question would have been put to General Liang about the leadership transition in full view of the region’s defense ministers, strategic elites and media. If so, the no-show might have been an attempt to dodge a bullet. Since the Bo Xilai drama became public, Chinese leaders have been extremely reluctant to take any questions on the issue of Party disunity.
Yet this particular bullet can’t be dodged so easily. Whether directly linked or not, General Liang’s absence is only fuelling speculation that intraparty rivalry is more serious and destabilizing than outsiders might believe. The failure to attend, or to provide an adequate explanation for not doing so, has reinforced the view that when the heat is on, Beijing’s political culture and instincts are inherently secretive and paranoid, and not transparent or cooperative.
The contrast between the U.S. and China in this regard helps explain why Mr. Panetta in turn scored such a diplomatic win at the conference. In his opening keynote, the secretary spoke about America enhancing its role in underwriting peace, prosperity, and a rules-based and open order in “the sea, air and cyberspace” domains. This will be done by “deepening and broadening” Washington’s regional presence and relationships with security allies and partners. The naval rebalancing is part of a strategy of “enhancing and adapting” the U.S. military presence in East and Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean.
Beijing must realize that Asian defense leaders will have drawn some conclusions from all this. America, despite a sluggish economy and a vigorous presidential election campaign now underway, is committed to engaging with Asia and has not abandoned its principles of transparency and responsible stakeholding. China, facing its own economic woes and leadership transition, has resorted to a mix of secretiveness and mounting aggression in the South China Sea. In staying away from Singapore, Beijing has managed to give its American rival a considerable diplomatic free-kick.