Shangri-La Dialogue 2024: Balance of Power or Display of Power

 By Dr Shushant VC Parashar

The 2024 Shangri-La Dialogue witnessed intense discussions on regional security dynamics and heated debates between the USA, China and the Philippines. In addition, a number of issues vital to India’s interests in the Indo-Pacific were also discussed.

Key Developments at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2024

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines delivered a keynote address of profound significance at the 21st edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue. His speech, a powerful testament to the Philippines’ unwavering commitment to peace and stability, underscored the importance of ASEAN centrality and the rule of law. He also highlighted the pivotal role of middle powers in maintaining regional stability and expressed the country’s intent to pursue robust collaboration with India and other nations.

The Philippines President went on to declare that the killing of Filipinos would verge on an “act of war.” Concurrently, US INDOPACOM Commander Admiral Samuel Paparo emphasised the importance of deterrence as a duty, highlighting military, economic and diplomatic dimensions. The admiral further stressed the role of reassurance in building trust and confidence among allies and partners and, in the process, countered claims made by a former Chinese envoy to the United States, Cui Tiankai, who stated that the necessity of deterrence needs to be opposed, advocating for cooperation to prevent conflict.

Newly elected Indonesian President Prabowo Subianto introduced a comprehensive Peace Plan on the Israel-Gaza conflict, reiterating his call for peace between Russia and Ukraine amidst their ongoing war. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged global leaders to participate in the forthcoming Peace Summit on June 15-16 in Switzerland, emphasising the urgency of collective action to resolve current conflicts.

At the dialogue, China and the United States presented starkly contrasting visions for Asia’s security, highlighting the tension and complexity of the region’s security landscape. On June 1, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin outlined a vision of increased connectivity with Europe and the Middle East, underlining upcoming initiatives such as a trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK military exercise plan and establishing a new regional defence industrial base.

After that, Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun articulated China’s regional security framework through a six-point plan (the plan consists of defending the legitimate security interests of all nations, working together to build a just and reasonable international order, utilising the framework for regional security, promoting transparent and practical defence cooperation, leading by example in maritime security cooperation and improving governance in newly emerging security domains), warning about Taiwan’s situation and cautioning against provocations in the South China Sea.

Fundamental Datapoints from an ASEAN Perspective

The Philippines emphasised the necessity of amplifying ASEAN voices in the Indo-Pacific, particularly regarding issues such as lethal autonomous weapons, space, and cyber domains. It also announced its pursuit of a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the 2027-28 term and the future enactment of a new maritime zones law.

Thailand called for enhanced cooperation between ASEAN-led frameworks and organisations like IORA, BIMSTEC, PIF, and the Mekong Cooperation Framework. It highlighted the importance of improving maritime domain awareness (MDA) in search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), climate change, and environmental degradation. Furthermore, Thailand underscored the advancement of a maritime security roadmap in collaboration with the US through the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus Working Group for 2021-2024.

Malaysia’s call for a security architecture that promotes cooperation while preventing fragmentation and exclusivity among member states is a crucial step towards a more unified ASEAN.

Singapore advocated for practical measures to prevent further conflicts in the South China Sea and stressed the need to resume US-China military exchanges. It also supported signing agreements in fishing and hydrocarbons and endorsed Germany and the EU as observers in ADMM Plus.

Cambodia emphasised preventing escalation in the South China Sea, upholding the five-point consensus on Myanmar. To allay ASEAN’s fears, it clarified that China’s role in the Ream Naval Base is strictly non-military.

Timor-Leste called for transparent maritime security agreements in the Timor Sea to counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It reiterated its goal of achieving “2025 Formal Admission” as an ASEAN member.

Fundamental Datapoints from an External Power Perspective

The United States emphasised the need to strengthen regional defence industrial bases, integrate Australian and Japanese air and missile defence architectures, and launch an ASEAN Future Defence Leaders Initiative. China’s stance was marked by a strong rebuke of the Philippines for destabilising the South China Sea, a call for the expedited implementation of a Code of Conduct (CoC), concerns over Taiwan’s situation, and a highlight of China-led forums globally.

South Korea’s stance includes its apprehensions regarding Russia’s acquisition of weapons from North Korea, the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and the need to uphold the existing rules-based international order. On the other hand, France’s stance emphasised its support for counterterrorism partnerships, efforts to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the South Pacific, and the strengthening and protection of unity among EU nations amidst the ongoing conflicts. It also stressed the importance of not supplanting the roles of international organisations like ASEAN and ensuring the implementation of international laws.

Australia expressed concern over China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, particularly regarding Taiwan and its growing closeness with Russia. It rejected the notion of an order based on “containment” and highlighted the interdependence of all strategic theatres. The European Union underscored its role as a “Smart Security Enabler” in domains such as cyber, disinformation, and maritime security, maintaining vigilance over China’s support for Russia amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Japan advocated for advancing minilateral cooperation with the United States, Australia, and the Philippines, enhancing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and developing critical technologies to counter grey zone activities. New Zealand aimed at reinforcing the Five Power Defence Arrangements, provided an overview of the completion of the P-8 mission related to North Korea and highlighted potential opportunities in Pillar-II of AUKUS. Canada underscored the growing strategic importance of the Arctic and prioritised the Indo-Pacific in its defence strategy.

Key Takeaways for India

The United States and China are striving to stabilise their relations, yet numerous factors—such as the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, the persistent lack of dialogue between the two nations, and contentious issues related to Taiwan and the South China Sea—fuel concerns about an inevitable confrontation in the South China Sea over Taiwan. On the second day of the dialogue, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III delivered his remarks titled “The New Convergence in the Indo-Pacific.” This convergence embodies a series of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions driven by a shared vision and mutual obligation, emphasising the free choices of sovereign states.

Notably, China, in a display of power, reiterated that peaceful reunification with Taiwan is its paramount goal, sternly warning that “whoever dares to split Taiwan from China will be crushed to pieces and suffer their destruction.”

Amidst these geopolitical tensions, potential opportunities arise for India to re-engage with ASEAN countries. It may be recalled that a recent survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute indicates that a portion of the ASEAN populace views India as having little political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia. In addition, references to MDA, HADR and the pivotal role of middle powers all add to the potential increase in India’s role at a time when nations in the Indo-Pacific, especially the ones from ASEAN, are hesitant to side with either of the big powers. Like New Zealand, India can collaborate with AUKUS on Pillar II, enhancing its cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and undersea operations capabilities.

The scene has been meticulously set, with the region’s key players poised to execute their defined roles. The outcomes of the dialogue are apparent, as the discussions, which were rich and diverse across various sessions, were filled with political platitudes: China’s “display of power,” the USA’s “balance of power,” and the “hedging through cooperative mechanisms” by the middle powers. The dialogue pinpointed the friction fuelling regional insecurity, yet the discourse on remedial measures leaned heavily towards “crisis management,” lacking a direct reference to the underlying issues they were meant to address. Thus, the enduring question from Shangri-La 2024 remains whether the Indo-Pacific is genuinely prepared to confront its regional security challenges in a manner that aligns with its implicit claims to leadership.