Seeking Truth from Facts : China's Success At ShangriI-La Dialogue? Column by Muraleedharan Nair

University of Westminster China Poster Collection


According to some reports, the large Chinese delegation led by its new Defence Minister Gen. Li Shangfu seemed pleased as they headed back home after the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, as their mission was accomplished successfully. The obvious question here is, what did the others think? A number of analyses on the subject by former diplomats, defence experts, academics, media persons and others have since come out. AICIS website too carried two small pieces on this by our Research Team. So, do I have anything different to say today?

I too think, the Chinese delegation succeeded in accomplishing what it had come planned to achieve at the forum. That is, to adapt some of their time-tested strategies and create a make-believe narrative and push it with all the force that all the stakeholders start believing in it. That is, well before the start of the Singapore event, China kept voicing loudly that the presence and manoeuvrings of ‘outsiders’ like the U.S. and its allies and partners were creating a dangerous situation in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. They insisted that the U.S. activities in the region would lead to conflict and confrontation, and the situation was fated to spin out of control, creating a potentially devastating scenario in the ‘Asia-Pacific’ and beyond. [Incidentally, it is still ‘Asia-Pacific’, and not ‘Indo-Pacific’ for the Chinese friends!]

China has also been demonstrating how such a possibility could develop in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and also in the East China Sea, not only in the waters, even using purported fishing vessels, but also above in the skies. The latest such incident occurred when a Chinese naval ship cut across dangerously close to the bow of a US naval vessel as the latter was transiting through the Taiwan Strait even as the Shangri-La Dialogue was in session. This followed a similar unsafe encounter involving military aircraft of both the countries above the South China Sea on the eve of the Singapore event. So, these events were in front of the delegates at the Shangri-La forum as a demonstration of the practical side of the Chinese narrative.

Now, who were the Chinese targeting by their campaign? No, not the U.S., nor the NATO members. In my limited understanding, maybe Australia to a certain extent, and even more so, the doubting Thomases (as the Chinese see it) in the ASEAN. At least to me, the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s passionate speech about the ‘potential devastation’ in Indo-Pacific in the event of a U.S.-China conflict was a reiteration, though different in style and intent, of the Chinese narrative. Obviously, he was not asking U.S. and allies to wind down from their stand on the issue. Was he naïve enough to ask the Chinese to back out? Clearly, no. He was pleading for the resumption of talks to avoid the feared U.S.-China conflict!

China has never been at ease with the ASEAN closely engaging the West, and in particular the U.S., though the grouping was also doing the same with the Chinese. Further, the Chinese, aware of the centrality of the ASEAN in any Indo-Pacific security architecture, wants to curb, if not prevent any further deepening of U.S.- ASEAN military cooperation. China’s strategy in the ASEAN has been to drive a wedge among the member countries and win over the vulnerable among them, i.e., if it fails to bring the whole grouping to its side. Moreover, everyone knows that China prefers to deal with individual members of a grouping, rather than the group as one, single entity.

The Chinese side seems to believe that it has been able to reinforce the fear in several regional leaders and other stakeholders that the ongoing cat and mouse game in South China Sea and Taiwan Strait will indeed end in a conflict having ‘devastating repercussions, particularly on their economies. China hopes that this fear would help persuade the regional leaders to revisit the situation again, and at least some of them take a more ‘careful’ position in the matter. It will be interesting to watch the impact of the ongoing Chinese propaganda on the type of participation, any change in the nature and objectives, and overall success of the September joint ASEAN military drill planned in, yes, South China Sea itself.

TAIL PIECE: An AICIS article a week ago had talked about the Chinese propaganda machinery’s achievement in building yet another narrative that it has been able to sell successfully. That is, the Chinese government assesses that the Ukraine war provided no lessons for its Taiwan occupation plan. As mentioned before, it was bought by many experts, including the authors of the IISS annual report 2023, without any real questioning! In fact, people, including intellectuals, getting swayed by Chinese narratives is nothing new. Besides those ideologically aligned with the Communist Party in China, there are otherwise intelligent people in every country who start believing in such Chinese narratives after getting influenced by sustained Chinese campaigns. It is wrong to call them all ‘anti-nationals’. As someone said recently, they are simply gullible, their high levels of education notwithstanding.

(Author is Director, AICIS. Views expressed in the article are personal to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of AICIS.)