This year, at the foremost conference on Asia-Pacific security, the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s rising power and aggression will be at the forefront of the talks.
The conference, organized by the independent think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is one of the only forums in which foreign ministers of all countries with an interest in the region can meet and discuss policy. The first installment was hosted in 2002 at the eponymous Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. As a somewhat unofficial conference, attendees are not pressured to come up with any formal reports or decisions, and usually take the time to host multilateral or bilateral meetings with regional partners.
This conference is particularly significant, as tensions have risen this past year. Active maritime border-disputes have many of the region’s larger players in a mini-arms race– defense spending has nearly doubled over the past decade, with most of that gain coming in the last 5 years.
In that regard, the conference is especially useful. Because of it’s unofficial nature and no specific goals, it allows defense officials to take a time-out to talk informally about the upcoming year.
The United States will play a key role in this year’s discussions, as new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel makes his first appearance. The so-called pivot of the U.S. military focus to Asia makes this meeting particularly important for the new DefSec. He will be accompanied by the USS Freedom, a new ship that symbolizes the shifting focus of the U.S. Navy.
The Freedom is a Littoral Combat ship, a classification that indicates it is able to operate smoothly in shallow waters, close to the shore. Most importantly, it is capable of operating away from its home port for an extended period of time– a key factor in a region dominated by the world’s largest ocean.
The United States plans to begin producing numerous Littoral Combat ships in the coming years, sending some to the Pacific, but sending others to regions such as Africa and South America. This move will allow several destroyers to be sent to the Pacific, bolstering the already robust U.S. presence.
U.S. officials have remained adamant that the country is increasing economic and diplomatic attention to the region, not just focusing militarily. However, many within the Chinese government see the pivot as an obvious counter to China’s increasingly active role in the region.
While there have been no direct diplomatic or military confrontations between the two powers, this conference and any upcoming meetings will be formative in shaping the relationships for the years to come. While China has no plans of halting it’s regional rise, the United States is surely against anyone but themselves becoming the dominant military player in the region.
Although the United States surely has much self-serving interest in the region, many international security experts look to the U.S. to enforce stability. As a geographically-removed party that faces no existential threats, one would expect the leading global power to avoid rash decisions that could disrupt the delicate balance of power. However, should a more local power like China ascend to the dominant position, it is far from guaranteed that the powder-keg would remain un-explosive.