Anticipation grows for China’s security vision at Shangri-La Dialogue summit while U.S. Defence Chief Lloyd Austin urges dialogue

Lloyd Austin (left) and Li Shangfu (right)

3rd June 2023 – (Singapore) China’s State Councilor and Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu made his first appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a pivotal Asia-Pacific security summit. The event is taking place from Friday to Sunday at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, where military and civilian delegates are convening for a series of bilateral meetings and discussions on Asia-Pacific security development. Li’s attendance at the event is essential for articulating China’s approach to global and regional stability.

Li is scheduled to deliver a speech on “China’s New Security Initiatives” on Sunday morning. Observers have speculated on the potential for a meeting between Li and his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, despite official talks being unlikely due to the U.S.’s ongoing infringement on China’s interests.

The 20th Shangri-La Dialogue is organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and is expected to draw around 600 delegates from over 40 countries and regions. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin will present a speech on Saturday, focusing on “U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific.”

Tensions have risen amid Asia-Pacific geopolitics, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese urged increased engagement between the U.S. and China in his opening remarks. He warned that a breakdown in communication between the two superpowers could carry disastrous consequences for the world.

Chinese and U.S. militaries have faced escalating tensions in recent months, driven by US actions that have provoked China on matters concerning its core interests, particularly the Taiwan issue. These tensions have been further fuelled by the U.S. and some of its allies, including a recent intrusion by a US RC-135 spy plane into the PLA Navy Shandong aircraft carrier group‘s training zone in the South China Sea.

On Thursday, Austin reaffirmed the U.S.’s unwavering commitment to Japan during his visit to the country. Meanwhile, the IISS released a report highlighting the evolving dynamics of the Asia-Pacific regional security order, emphasising China’s growing power and strategic extroversion as the leading long-term challenges to the existing international order in the region.

Despite the Shangri-La Dialogue being a platform primarily used by Western countries to criticise China, Li’s attendance demonstrates confidence and a willingness to engage with regional nations in the pursuit of stability. China is expected to engage in face-to-face bilateral talks with defence officials from a dozen countries during the event. China’s objectives at the dialogue include introducing its Global Security Initiative and addressing Western accusations of a “military threat.”

The positions of Southeast Asian countries in the ongoing power struggle between China and the US have been a recurring question and will be a focal point during the dialogue. Indonesian officials and regional observers have expressed a desire for improved relations between the two superpowers. China’s Global Security Initiative, which prioritises the security interests of all countries, has resonated with Asia-Pacific nations as an alternative to the West’s rules-based order.

China’s approach to security cooperation and conflict resolution in the region emphasises peace, development, and inclusiveness, in contrast to the US’s focus on war, division, and exclusion. This difference in perspectives could have significant implications for the future of Asia-Pacific security and diplomacy.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin underlined U.S. resolve to shore up alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific in a speech to a key security conference in Singapore on Saturday morning. He stressed that there was no room for intimidation, bullying, or coercion, and that the US was doubling down on reinforcing its security alliances and partnerships.

Austin said the right time for dialogue is anytime for responsible defence leaders, delivering a veiled swipe at his Chinese counterpart. The US said Beijing had declined a meeting between Austin and Chinese Defence Minister General Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the conference. It is known among sources that U.S. sanctions placed on Li were the main reason for declining a formal encounter.

Austin referred to the Taiwan Strait and said the U.S. network of friendly countries in Asia would defend against coercion, especially in the Taiwan Strait. He repeated U.S. policy to recognise Beijing has the only government of China and highlight that conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable.