Asian Security Summit, also known as Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) is sponsored by London-based independent think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). It recently held its annual conference, seventeenth since inception in 2002, in Hotel Shangri-La Singapore from where it takes its name. The idea of an Asian Security Forum on the pattern of Munich Security Conference (MSC) had been thought of since mid-1990s but received serious attention in 2001, when European participants in MSC showed insensitivity towards emerging security challenges in Asia. However, it is global in character and brings nearly 350 senior figures from more than 70 countries around the world to its yearly moot to engage in an intensive debate on security issues worldwide.
SLD is attended by defence ministers, permanent heads of ministries and military chiefs from 28 countries in Asia-Pacific region – Australia, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, China, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, East Timor, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam. While primarily it is a ‘Track-I’ forum, the conference is also attended by legislators, academic experts, distinguished journalists and business delegates. The core theme this year was ‘rule based regional order’– an unmistakable dig at China in ongoing Sino-U.S. face-off in South China Sea. ‘Rule based regional order’ is a worthy cause, provided rules are applied universally rather than sermonized selectively, and are not interpreted to the advantage of stronger powers.
After 70 years, U.S. renamed Pacific Command (PACOM), its unified combatant command in Hawaii, as ‘Indo-Pacific Command’, ostensibly to woo India deeper into its larger strategic design for the region. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ over geographically more limited ‘Asia-Pacific’, has all the potential of placing India front and center. Adding Indian Ocean to Pacific, increases challenge to Chinese quest for safer energy lifelines and its flagship project Belt and Road Initiative. The Indo-Pacific concept, without a shadow of doubt, has tangible implications for balance of power in the region.
The SLD endeavors to cultivate a sense of community among policymakers from participating states in defence and security domains. It engages them in a dialogue aimed at building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation. Since SLD is modeled on MSC, its initial focus was on ASEAN Regional Forum which reflected its desire to adopt a ‘trans-regional’ format, but this goal apparently lost steam due to various reasons. It suffered a setback when China downgraded its participation in 2012 and has since continued that pattern. In China’s view, U.S. pivot to Asia and its deepening interest in South China Sea, is a form of containment, in the manner advocated by George Frost Kennan in 1940, when he called for ‘bracketing’ Soviet Union. China considers ‘Pacific pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’, (a term used after concerns expressed by EU), as a bad omen, especially after chaos in Middle East and Afghanistan in the past decades as a result of gung-ho U.S. policies. It has instituted ‘Xiangshan Forum’ as an alternate to SLD, where not unexpectedly, the last summit’s theme was ‘Build a New Type of International Relations through Security Dialogue and Cooperation’.
Pakistan sent its representative to SLD for the first time in 2005 and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat led the delegation in 2017. He stressed on managing crises facing Asia-Pacific in an environment of shifting geostrategic realignments and unresolved territorial disputes. He declared that Pakistan was proactively making efforts to reduce strains on regional stability and dwelt on interplay between South Asia and Asia-Pacific. He also cautioned about emergence of international threats from non-state actors as a result of rapidly advancing technology – a brave effort to a far from sympathetic global audience. He strongly advocated China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which he said, was joined by most regional countries except India and emphasized that trading benefits could lead to resolution of regional disputes. The Indian delegation had pulled out of conference over a protocol row with organizers.
The core theme this year was ‘rule based regional order’– an unmistakable dig at China in ongoing Sino-U.S. face-off in South China Sea. ‘Rule based regional order’ is a worthy cause, provided rules are applied universally rather than sermonized selectively, and are not interpreted to the advantage of stronger powers.
This year’s conference was used by U.S. as an opportunity to re-brand Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific and was dominated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis. Mattis has earned for himself some uncomplimentary monikers like ‘Mad Dog’, ‘Warrior Monk’ and ‘Chaos’. He is also reported to have said, ‘Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet’. Not surprisingly, Mattis cast U.S.’ vision in rhetoric which echoed Trump administration’s National Security and National Defense Strategy, which identified China as a ‘revisionist power’ and ‘strategic competitor’. He promised to implement Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy by invigorating U.S. investment, working to strengthen rule of law, increasing attention to maritime space and deepening alliances.
This pronouncement, however, was not backed by any set of goals to be achieved along a timeline, any real strategy in which participants can have confidence, policy enumeration or implementation plan, let alone resourcing or budgetary commitments. He had it coming when for every assurance by him not to count U.S. out of Indo-Pacific calculus, the allies expressed deep skepticism over chilly protectionist and nationalist winds blowing across U.S. domestic politics, not to mention a deeply troubling Trump Presidency.
Modi, on the other hand, used this forum to project India as a stabilizing force in a regional order presently in flux and a nuanced concept of India’s strategic interests in Asia and Pacific regions. Modi had been obsessed with blue economy and maritime greatness of India since he came into power in 2014. He firmly believes that India’s development is best advanced across sea lanes of Indian and Pacific Oceans and thus has been vigorously pursuing political influence through greater maritime power play. This was obvious from his intensified political engagement with six Indian Ocean littoral states within a few months of his rule. He has rarely missed an opportunity to further that cause with any country near or far from the Indian coast. Here is something that Pakistan needs to seriously consider in its own context.
Modi further spoke in some broad terms about India’s strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific but remained well short of any exclusive alliance structure. He argued in favor of building an open and free system in Asia which upholds sovereign rights of countries and rule of law, and promotes prosperity but showed no discernable interest in alliances aimed at containing China. He didn’t spell it in so many words but India indeed has many ‘layer upon layer’ and intertwining interests in China which are crucial to its emergence as an economic power. In sum, Modi may have been conveying that ‘Indo’ and ‘Pacific’ are not created equal in the ordering of New Delhi’s priorities. The problem with both India and U.S. is their credibility – as very often they say one thing and do quite the opposite.
In sum, Modi may have been conveying that ‘Indo’ and ‘Pacific’ are not created equal in the ordering of New Delhi’s priorities. The problem with both India and U.S. is their credibility – as very often they say one thing and do quite the opposite.
Modi’s spoken words, notwithstanding his description of India as a stabilizing force in a regional order presently in flux and a nuanced concept of India’s strategic interests in Asia and Pacific regions, has raised many questions. How will Indian policymakers transform this concept into actions? Will India endeavor to be a power seeking to impose its own solutions to region’s security issues? If India’s current economic trajectory does indeed catapult it to become a dominant maritime power in decades ahead, will it exercise that power in a spirit of self-restraint and strengthen international law so that any emerging order is constructed by a sense of obligation to ‘rule based regional order’ rather than an over-bearing and creeping assertion of power? Will India be a pluralistic power and encourage a wide spectrum of participants in regional endeavors, eschewing exclusivist mini-lateral formats which smack off bloc-based alignments and politics? And lastly, will India, as stabilizing power as it portends itself, be prepared to use its geopolitical influence to pursue a ‘balance of interest within the region’? Unfortunately, India’s track record is not re-assuring on all these counts.
After 70 years, U.S. renamed Pacific Command (PACOM), its unified combatant command in Hawaii, as ‘Indo-Pacific Command’, ostensibly to woo India deeper into its larger strategic design for the region. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ over geographically more limited ‘Asia-Pacific’, has all the potential of placing India front and center. Adding Indian Ocean to Pacific increases challenge to Chinese quest for safer energy lifelines and its flagship project Belt and Road Initiative. The Indo-Pacific concept, without a shadow of doubt, has tangible implications for balance of power in the region.
There is some gloating among the Indian Navy over this change of brass plates in Hawaii. How will the new concept unfold in the years ahead is hard to predict at this moment. Will there be delineation of U.S. and Indian combatant commands with well-defined zones of operations? What could be their level of co-operation? How will this development harmonize with existing Indo-U.S. strategic accords? What synergies will it create militarily? How will this new development affect freedom of the seas enshrined in the charter of UN and codified in United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)? Will this alliance impose its hegemony on smaller states? What strategic implications it will have for CPEC and Pakistan? These are all burning questions begging for an answer.
The unsavory monikers of top U.S. defense officials coupled with frequent boasts from Modi about his 56 inches chest, should give us enough insight into their policies in the region. Pakistan needs to keep a razor sharp focus on developments affecting its southern frontier.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy.
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