"No bilateral relation has more layers than the India-China relation. The India-China cooperation is deepening and trade among them is growing. Both countries are controlling their divergences maturely and wisely in a bid to jointly preserve peace on their respective borders." Indian Prime Minister Modi gave a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore on the evening of June 1, 2018, addressing the defense ministers of a dozen countries and senior military officers and scholars from 50 countries.
His speech set a "peaceful tone" for this year's SLD, at which the dramatic turns in the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and traditional topics like counter terrorism and maritime security received close attention.
A peaceful tone
Modi's speech in Singapore was just what was expected by the delegates. The SLD, the most important annual platform for defense ministers and military personnel in the Asian Pacific region, has been held for 17 years, but the Indian defense minister only attended four of them.
In his speech, Modi talked about a series of geopolitical issues, including the Look East policy, and global and regional security. The reporter noticed that he mentioned China twice, the same amount of times it mentioned the United States. He spoke of India's relation with Russia, the United States and China successively, and his positive comments on China-India relation were the highlight of the speech.
The word "Indo-Pacific" has lately become popular. Military officers in the Western Alliance all hope to bring India into the Indo-Pacific alliance that can contain China, but India has its own opinions.
Modi quoted a Hindi idiom to summarize his Indo-Pacific strategy, signifying the meaning of "there is only one truth, but it can be expressed in different ways" according to Vijay Chauthaiwale, head of the diplomatic policy department of India's ruling party the Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi was expressing his resolve to share in the regional prosperity and order.
"I find Prime Minister Modi's speech constructive. It conveyed friendliness toward China and expectations for the China-India relation," said Lieutenant General He Lei, head of the Chinese military delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) and vice president of China's PLA Academy of Military Sciences.
"In my opinion, India has realized that China is far ahead of them in terms of military, especially economic, strength. Therefore, to maintain its leadership in the region, India has to form a relation of mutual understanding with China," said Syed Munir Khasru, a delegate to the SLD and Chairman of the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG) of Bangladesh, who said in an interview that "China and India don't have to be good friends. They can just be good neighbors."
This was Modi's second visit to Singapore. A few days later, he will meet again with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin at the SCO Qingdao Summit.
"A peaceful, stable and prosperous Indian Ocean is in the interests of not only countries and peoples in the region, but also of the major powers. Cooperation is the only choice for major countries in the Indian Ocean," said Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, director of the Office of Xiangshan Forum Secretariat and a researcher of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences.
"You saw Prime Minister Modi meet with Xi Jinping in Wuhan, and they will meet again at the SCO Summit in Qingdao this month. India is trying to forge a strategic relation of mutual understanding with China, so that it can focus on economic development and, in a way, properly deal with its relation with Pakistan," said Syed Munir Khasru.
Always ready for changes
The South China Sea issue was an old excuse used by the U.S. to accuse China in previous SLDs. When giving a speech on the morning of June 2, American Defense Minister Mattis pointed finger at China again on this issue, doubting China's objective behind its "South China Sea policy".
In his speech, Mattis emphasized that "countries in the region don't have to take sides between China and the U.S.", but he admitted that the Pentagon will carry out "strong competition" with China on the "South China Sea issue", and claimed that the U.S. will help Taiwan establish suitable defense capability according to the Taiwan Relations Act.
You can never wake up a person pretending to be asleep. Mattis turned a blind eye to the achievements made by China and ASEAN countries in controlling divergences through dialogue and improving the situation in the South China Sea.
After Mattis finished the speech, Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo from China raised a question about "militarization of the South China Sea", asking that since the so-called "freedom of navigation" operations conducted by American military equipment in the South China Sea violated laws of the host country, wasn't that the real "militarization"?
Mattis argued about the "freedom of navigation" again and reaffirmed America's wish to work with China, adding that he will visit China at the end of June. "The United States will continue to seek a constructive and result-oriented relation with China, and cooperate with it when possible," he said, "any sustainable regional order is impossible without China's engagement".
"Most countries in the world approve of freedom of navigation, but they have different interpretations of this concept in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China insists that freedom of navigation shouldn't be unilaterally and intentionally distorted to be the 'freedom of military action' that harms the interests and security of countries along the coast." Lieutenant General He Lei explained China's South China Sea policy and assertions and criticized the operations of American military aircraft and vessels as the root cause for "South China Sea militarization".
All major countries attach great importance to the Indian Ocean because of its strategic significance. They both cooperate and compete in the region.
According to Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, director of the Security Center in the Office of International Military Cooperation under China's Ministry of National Defense, any new initiative must be more transparent, inclusive and open and promote the win-win cooperation of all parties, including the Indo-Pacific concept put forth by the United States. Otherwise, it won't be recognized by the parties and will end up short-lived without any support.
One sentence said by Mattis was most impressive - China and the U.S. will "cooperate where possible, compete where we must".
"The recent signs indicate that the U.S. may adopt a more aggressive stance on regional security this year." Associate professor Li Mingjiang from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University expressed concerns over Mattis' speech.
"On May 27, two Aegis warships - USS Antietam and USS Higgins - entered China's territorial sea near Xisha Islands without the Chinese government's permission. China not being invited to the 2018 RIMPAC multilateral military exercise was just an initial reaction," Li Mingjiang added.
On May 31, an American B52 bomber entered China's airspace over the South China Sea, approached the Dongsha Islands and even got close to the open waters near China's Guangdong Province. It only turned back and flew to the air force base in Guam after China drove it away. This was the third infringement on China's airspace over the South China Sea by B52 within 12 days.
"America's military aircraft and vessels carried out close-in reconnaissance and military operations in the sea areas and airspace of Chinese islands and reefs, and even flaunted their force within 12 nautical miles of Chinese maritime features. That's far beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It's a disruption of China's security and stability." Lieutenant General He Lei considered it as a provocation to China's sovereignty.
But the blatant threat of force was just an appetizer for Mattis, while his deeper calculations were hidden in the seemingly normal military adjustment. On May 30, 2018, two days before attending the SLD in Singapore, Mattis chaired the ceremony in Hawaii for renaming the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command and changing its commander.
Greg Austin, a researcher at America's East West Institute, said in an interview that the U.S. is probably not as strong and hands-on as before.
Mattis called on China's neighbors to reshape their role in the Indo-Pacific region.
According to Richard Javad Heydarian, assistant professor of international affairs and politics at Philippines' De La Salle University, Modi and Mattis put forth two different versions of "Indo-Pacific region". Modi thought it is defined by middle countries like India, Japan and Australia while Mattis believed it is still the arena for major powers.
"The Asia-Pacific region will only be relatively stable when the China-U.S. relation is relatively stable. China advocates no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation with the U.S., which is not only beneficial for bilateral relations, but also makes considerations for the Asian-Pacific and global security," said Senior Colonel Zhou Bo.
But he added that in the past one year or so, the U.S. has not only intensified aircraft and vessel reconnaissance of China, but also stepped up military activities in the South China Sea, challenging China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This counters the improving situation in the South China Sea and contradicts America's claim that it takes no sides on the South China Sea issue. As a country outside the region, the U.S. has become a prominent factor of instability in the region and obstructed the efficient China-U.S. cooperation within the Asia-Pacific multilateral framework.
It takes a master to know the game
The Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is the biggest variable that affects the Asian-Pacific security and stability, and the dramatic changes on this issue are without any doubt the highlight in Asia-Pacific's security situation this year. The historic meeting between American and DPRK leaders will take place in Singapore on June 12, so the Korean Peninsula issue was a focus at this year's SLD.
DPRK leaders met with former American presidents twice. The first time was in 1994, when former American president Jimmy Carter met with Kim Jong-un's grandfather Kim Il-sung, and the second time was in 2009, when former president Bill Clinton, after he left office, met with Kim Jong-un's father Kim Jong Il.
Singapore's Defense Minister NG Eng Hen said Singapore will bear part of the expenses for the Trump-Kim meeting as a "small contribution to this historic summit". "It would be terrible if eventually the meeting didn't take place. Singapore will play its role well as a host and make careful preparations to ensure the security," said NG Eng Hen.
The SLD held a special discussion on "mitigating the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis" on June 2, at which defense officials from South Korea, Japan and Canada gave speeches.
South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo said that we cannot let history affect the DPRK and South Korea's expectations for the future; otherwise they would never begin the negotiation and could never realize peaceful co-existence. The leaders of both sides made strenuous efforts to write a new chapter of history.
"When I talked with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo, we mentioned the current positive changes on the Korean Peninsula. China and South Korea share many views regarding the positive trend on the peninsula. We strongly encourage South Korea to follow through the agreement it reached with the DPRK at Panmunjom," said Lieutenant General He Lei.
Canada's Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan held that some encouraging signs have appeared in the past few months, which meant that it is possible to solve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through diplomatic means. But hope comes along with uncertainty, and the international community must still act with caution.
"Asian countries hope to see the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue being thoroughly resolved and the DPRK coming back to the international community, which will be helpful for the lasting peace and stability of the Asia Pacific region," according to Oh Ei Sun, senior advisor of international affairs at Malaysia's Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute.
Oh Ei Sun said that the two meetings between South Korean and DPRK leaders and the two meetings between Chinese and DPRK leaders in the past half year, as well as the upcoming summit between the DPRK and American leaders all reflect their expectations and efforts for an early solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.
In the Asia Pacific region, there is the U.S.-led military alliance and also organizations like the SCO and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) that advocate non-alignment and opening up, there is the ASEAN-led dialogue mechanism like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ADMM-PLUS and also multilateral and bilateral dialogue mechanisms like the SLD, Western Pacific Naval Symposium and Xiangshan Forum. The DPRK and the U.S. may have completely different paths to solving the same issue, such as the Korean peninsula denuclearization.
Some experts said that the DPRK hopes to take the denuclearization as the outcome, but the U.S. makes "comprehensive, examinable and irreversible denuclearization" as the premise.
Disclaimer: The authors are Yao Yijiang, Zheng Yujun, Zhuang Junlang, Li Sihan, Liu Min, Gu Qiong and Li Yingying, reporters with infzm.com. The article is translated from Chinese into English by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.