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US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan hosts a multilateral meeting with Asian nations at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2019, Singapore, May 31, 2019. Courtesy of Lisa Ferdinando/U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

Shangri-La Dialogue: Europe Navigating Asia Amidst a US–China Standoff

Veerle Nouwens
Commentary, 20 June 2019
Asia, China, International Security Studies, European Union, France, UK, Global Security Issues, International Institutions, Law and Ethics, Maritime Forces, Europe, Pacific
This year’s Annual Shangri-La Dialogue set the stage for confrontation between China and the US. The now former US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan launched Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, while China upped its participation by being represented at ministerial level for the first time since 2011. The message of both protagonists was clear – neither the US nor China is backing down. European actors will need to carve out their niche, assuming they know why they want a greater defence engagement in Asia.

At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan affirmed the US’s commitment to its Indo-Pacific ‘priority theatre’, while General Wei Fenghe, China’s Defence Minister and first-ranked State Councillor, echoed familiar Chinese party-line declarations of ‘win-win’ cooperation if China’s interests were respected. Yet, there were no heated exchanges, despite the two sparring partners’ vastly different perspectives of the region’s future geopolitical order.

Neither the US nor China wants to see military conflict erupt against an already tense backdrop of disputes over unequal trade, state-sponsored illegal acquisition of technology, and influence operations. This is not to say that sharp exchanges between China and the US were avoided. The US underscored that China’s behaviour, and particularly its use of a ‘toolkit of coercion’, must stop. And, while the US seeks to continue to cooperate with Beijing, Shanahan pointed out that it will only do so if Beijing plays by internationally established rules. Wei, in turn, noted that China’s defence spending was appropriate and its activities in the South China Sea were entirely in self-defence, but warned that ‘we will surely counterattack if attacked’. Great power rivalry was clearly on display, and the battle of visions for the region’s future presented by the two major powers of Asia has only just begun.

Against the backdrop of major-power competition, increased defence and security engagement by European powers in Asia is a noteworthy development, with French Defence Minister Florence Parly, the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini and UK Secretary of Defence Penny Mordaunt all underscoring their commitment to the region.

However, to deliver on that promise, interested European countries will have to first understand that their objective should be to work with Asian countries in partnership, as opposed to viewing the region only in the context of their relationships with the US and China. Secondly, the Europeans need a vision. Shanahan noted that the US has ‘more than a strategy – we have a plan’. To be sure, this plan would have resonated better had the US not withdrawn from various multilateral arrangements and included new solutions to the challenges that lie ahead. Nevertheless, there is at least momentum in the US strategy’s development.  

The clear and strong performance by Parly, who presented France’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy, was an exception amongst the European discourse – not only in its delivery, but also in its substance, by setting out five priorities for France’s engagement in the region. These include a robust assertion that France is a Pacific country with a permanent military presence in the Indo-Pacific, which will be used to sail ‘more than twice a year in the South China Sea’. France also noted the convening and facilitating role it played in Europe, with European offices and UK helicopters having joined France as it sailed through the South China Sea on previous occasions.  

The speeches by Mogherini and Mordaunt also signalled that their security engagement and defence presence in the region would continue to grow. However, both speeches lacked a strategic framework for engagement – despite offering a great deal to the region in traditional and non-traditional defence and security terms.

Key underlying themes ran as a thread through all of the European speeches: respect for the international rules-based system and the rule of law, the enforcement of international standards, the importance of multilateralism, the need to support fundamental global values, and partnership with the region. However, for these objectives to be met, the UK and EU alike will need to present coherent strategies for the region. They will need to understand how small and middle powers in Asia see their future, both in terms of their own national capability development in defence and security (whether civilian or military) and in terms of the regional balance of power and how European powers fit into this.

This is, of course, already a point of discussion in many bilateral and multilateral formats between Europe and the Asia-Pacific. However, at a time when strategic communication is crucial in signalling intent in an already contested region, European states looking to increase their engagement would do well to lay out a clear vision. Being a ‘reliable partner’, as Mordaunt underscored numerous times, and the very brief outline of the UK’s many security contributions to the region – past, present and future – came across as insufficient. Nor do they do justice to the commitment the UK has already outlined in the Pacific by opening three new posts, or existing commitments to ASEAN post-Brexit, its Commonwealth members in the region and the upgrade of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), the signing of a Defence Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (DCMOU), a strengthened bilateral defence partnership with Japan, and upholding the rules-based international system in the wider region. Of course, it is to be noted that Mordaunt has only just taken up her role, and perhaps wanted to strike a different tone from her predecessor Gavin Williamson.

Likewise, Mogherini, speaking on a panel concerning Korean security, was perhaps faced with a limited scope to outline her broader security ideas, which would surely be built on various elements of the EU’s global strategy (with four strategic partnerships in Asia), its maritime security strategy, its deepening relationship with ASEAN towards a strategic partnership, and of course the Enhanced EU Security Cooperation in and with Asia Council Conclusions of May 2018, amongst others. These are all valuable building blocks of the EU’s engagement in the region, but again, do not equate to a singular strategy on the region. Mogherini noted progress in EU–ASEAN defence relations with the creation of new military adviser posts in EU delegations and ongoing joint military engagements with 11 Asian countries. This is a welcome step in signalling to Asian countries that the EU is increasingly engaging in defence matters in Asia. However, ending on the EU’s support for a ‘new regional security architecture’ in Northeast Asia, as outlined at the end of the speech, seemed out of place given the preceding mention of significant challenges that lay ahead in solving the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the continued lack of interest in the region to model itself on the European Union.

At a time when Asian states, like Singapore in Southeast Asia, urge both Beijing and Washington to find peaceful solutions to their disputes, and leave smaller countries out of the crossfire, the engagement of European middle powers is helpful in strategic hedging. However, European countries will have to do what major powers don’t – which is to understand what role the region would like them to play, and not vice versa. This will also have to be embodied with national strategies that keep existing regional security architecture and institutions squarely in focus, while understanding where their engagement could add most value. That engagement, despite the appeal of headline-grabbing policies like the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and joining the US in conducting Freedom of Navigation operations, may not be the policy of choice if lasting impact and capacity building is the desired outcome.

Instead, the UK, EU member states and the EU institutions would be well placed to help countries in the region develop their maritime domain awareness (MDA) capabilities – through helping build data collection, fusion and analysis tools, provide comprehensive and long-term maritime security and MDA trainings appropriate to local maritime security contexts, and build greater capacity in maritime law enforcement agencies and other relevant institutions involved in ensuring legal finish to maritime crime in the region. Indeed, the maritime security challenges of Asia are numerous, from modern slavery and human trafficking to illicit wildlife trafficking and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and from drugs smuggling to piracy and armed robbery at sea, as well as the need to tackle transnational organised crime networks that utilise and exploit global maritime corridors. Furthermore, capacity building around Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, cyber security and border management would likewise be helpful.

However, these efforts must be coordinated between EU actors and like-minded states to avoid duplication of efforts, rest on thorough needs assessments across the region, and be sustainable in their long-term impact on the ground. European countries should not simply view Asia writ large, or specific countries, as a region to engage with on the sideline of a grander China strategy. While this is to some extent already being done, it remains to be seen how the EU and European countries alike will fuse the many ongoing activities into a regional strategy that can be communicated clearly and succinctly. How these strategies will strike a balance between China and other Asian countries remains to be seen. Minister Parly noted with confidence that ‘we believe we can chart our own way, avoid confrontation, and carry a distinctive voice’. Perhaps, but this has yet to be proven.

BANNER IMAGE: US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan hosts a multilateral meeting with Asian nations at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2019, Singapore, May 31, 2019. Courtesy of Lisa Ferdinando/U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Veerle Nouwens
Senior Research Fellow

Veerle Nouwens is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute,... read more

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