Power shift

Print edition : July 01, 2011

An evident tendency at the Shangri-La summit was to recognise China's growing military strength.

in Singapore

U.S. SECRETARY OF Defence Robert Gates (left) shakes hands with China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie at the 10th Asia Security Summit in Singapore on June 3.-JASON REED/REUTERS

DEFENCE Ministers, by definition, constitute an exclusive breed with a job description totally different from that applicable to Foreign Ministers. However, the utter uncertainties of the present global order blur or even erase the distinction between these two groups, equal custodians of the mystique of the sovereign national interest.

This aspect of the ongoing but unlabelled post-Cold-War period was in ample evidence at the 10th Asia Security Summit organised in Singapore by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in early June. Political leaders from the United States, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, Russia and several South-east Asian countries vied with one another in pledging to pursue various nuances of defence diplomacy.

For the first time in the decade-long history of this summit, known as Shangri-La Dialogue by the name of the Singapore hotel venue, China was represented by its highest defence leader. Unsurprisingly, IISS Director-General John Chipman and others from the institute emphasised the significance of participation by Chinese National Defence Minister Liang Guanglie in this summit.

It was as if a power shift from the U.S. to China in global affairs was now being predicted as a possibility, if not as a certainty. An evident tendency at the summit was to see the now-emerging global order as a potential and qualitatively new bipolar world, with the U.S. and China being the nodal points this time.

A summit honour reserved for the U.S. so far, namely an exclusive plenary session devoted to the defence profile of just one country, was now extended to China. As a full-fledged military general, Liang was the only speaker at a plenary session on the final day of the summit, June 5.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a veteran of several summits in this IISS series, retained the honour of being the only speaker at the first plenary session a day earlier. The emerging geopolitical realities of East Asia, rather than mere summit logistics, could be seen behind such a gesture to China this time.

The continuing process of China's possible emergence as a military superpower has already induced several countries in East Asia, notably Japan and Vietnam, to try and tone up their defence preparedness. Unsurprisingly, a recurring theme, either during this Shangri-La Dialogue or on its sidelines, was the possibility of a qualitatively new arms build-up or a sophisticated arms race in East Asia.

Besides the U.S. and China, the other countries figuring in different kinds of calculus of power were India, Japan, Russia, Vietnam, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. The U.S. is the current sole superpower, with no apologies for its post-modern' military programmes. But China and others fight shy of being seen as being militaristic' in their defence planning. This aspect of image politics is totally different from transparency in the disclosure of national military programmes.

Mindful of an interplay of such image politics, as was evident at this summit, Tim Huxley, IISS Director for Defence and Military Analysis, later commented that military modernisation was now the politically correct term for arms build-up or arms race.

Predictably, Gates struck a gung-ho posture of being the retiring custodian of America's global supremacy as a military power. Responding to a question from Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, about the relative military profiles of the U.S. and China in five years' time, Gates was willing to place a bet on America remaining just as strong as now, if not stronger, in such a future timeline.

In stark contrast, Liang went on a charm offensive to assure China's neighbours that its deeds would match its words about staying the course of a non-hegemonic power along a long timeline into the future.

Liang was emphatic in projecting a benign montage of China's potential progress along a path of peaceful development. In his words, China's defence modernisation is compatible with its growth in national economy. Not only that. While we focus on economic growth, we are sparing some resources for the development of China's military, Liang said, pointing to the generational gap between the modernity scale of Beijing's current military hardware and the high-tech quality of the arsenals of the U.S. and several other countries.

Frequently asked about the perceptions of Beijing's neighbours that it was now beginning to flex its military muscle to their detriment along the resources-rich South China Sea, Liang said maritime traffic in that domain is not impeded. In fact, the sub-region is stable, he said.

Continuing concerns

On the contrary, China's neighbours in that maritime zone chose to go public at this summit about their continuing concerns. Far from accepting China's affirmations of good faith, Vietnam's National Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh, a military general, drew attention to Hanoi's dilemma in facing Beijing's growing military presence in this maritime zone.

Significantly relevant to this context was Gates' exposition on how the U.S. was now winning new friends like Vietnam and influencing old allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia in East Asia. Gates outlined, too, a new policy of wanting to widen the American military footprint across the entire sub-region of South-east Asia, home to not only Vietnam but also Indonesia and Malaysia.

On Beijing's expanding portfolio of global interests and expanding [regional] military capabilities, Nigel Inkster, IISS Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, said China was not on a new charm offensive that has suddenly been invented now. China's current moves, in words and deeds, were more of a course correction than it is the charting of an entirely new course, Inkster said.

Of the other key players in East Asia, Japan, currently preoccupied with its nuclear radiation crisis, expressed an interest in scaling up the technology of robots and unmanned aerial vehicles. Such an interest, outlined by Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, can have military implications, but the summit witnessed no opposition.

India caused a flutter when Minister of State for Defence M.M. Pallam Raju emphasised that it would be difficult for New Delhi to sustain its current self-restraint in the event of another terrorist attack like the 26/11 strike against Mumbai. Was this a categorical warning that New Delhi would retaliate militarily against Pakistan if it were to engineer another terrorist attack on India? Obviously, the answer was no'; but Raju's comment was generally taken as a warning to Pakistan. He later reaffirmed his earlier comment that India was actually continuing to engage extensively with Pakistan to avoid a repeat of 26/11.

Raju, assisted by India's High Commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan and military officials Rakesh Pandit and K.A. Bopanna, figured prominently in a brief but powerful exchange of views with Liang and his big delegation. Liang told Raju that some senior Indian officials and the Indian press were, from time to time, raising some artificial obstacles that only impeded the good momentum in defence cooperation between the two countries. Raju responded that India continued to believe in strengthening its relationship with China, including defence cooperation, on the basis of mutual respect for each other's concerns.

Significantly, Liang was later asked by an Indian delegate at the summit about China's core interests in South Asia. Liang did not mention India or South Asia by name but identified Beijing's core interests as China's political system, sovereignty and territorial integrity and also economic and social development.

In a sense, a new dynamic in East Asia will be the China-India engagement, more so in the context of the new U.S. tendency to cite, in the same breath, not only Tokyo but also New Delhi as friends in respect of the American core interests.

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