Printer Friendly

China's engagement with regional security multilateralism: the case of the Shangri-La dialogue.

Making sense of the implications of China's rise has become something of a scholarly industry. Given its scale, civilizational legacy and its place at the heart of the global economy, this is entirely appropriate. In International Relations (IR) debate the main focus is on whether China's economic growth is likely to lead to conflict with the United States and its allies. Some commentators argue that war between a dominant and rising power is almost inevitable, (1) while others contend that it can be avoided. (2) More liberally minded scholars make the case that China's interests are not well served by contesting power with the world's largest military, which also happens to be its biggest customer. (3) At the heart of this particular debate about the implications of China's rise is the extent to which a more prosperous and powerful China is likely to be a status quo or revisionist state. (4) Will a richer and more confident China accept existing arrangements or will it seek to rewrite the rules of the game? This question is of interest in many spheres, from trade policy to monetary arrangements, international institutions to development programmes; whether China supports or changes the established order has implications across almost every imaginable international policy field.

One of the most important developments in international security policy in the post-war period has been the emergence of multilateral security cooperation as a core part of almost every state's security arrangements. Prior to 1945, apart from some ill-fated experiments at the League of Nations, multilateral security cooperation barely existed. Groups might form strategic alliances--as they did so disastrously prior to the First World War--but there was nothing resembling the scale, volume or frequency of the gatherings that now so routinely occur. States today regularly gather in multilateral groupings to collaborate on a vast array of security matters. This includes everything from cooperation to combat non-traditional security concerns such as infectious diseases and organized crime to multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/ DR) training missions, from institutionalized summitry to gatherings of defence college heads. Prompted by the expansion of security challenges caused by globalization, changes in the understanding of what constitutes a security threat and broader normative shifts in world politics--perhaps the most important being the strong norm curtailing the use of force--multilateralism in security policy has become core business for all states.

In Europe the embrace of multilateral approaches to security began shortly after the end of the Second World War. In the nascent structures of what became the European Union (EU), such as the Council of Europe, the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), states began to work collectively to advance commonly held security aims. In East Asia, the turn to multilateralism was rather more circumspect. During the Cold War, security arrangements were almost entirely in the hands of states themselves or organized through traditional bilateral alliances. Efforts such as the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) were very much the exception and at the margins of strategic influence. Beyond these, perhaps the only example of an institution associated with security multilateralism was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was founded in 1967. Intended to provide an international framework to produce more harmonious regional relations, and as a bulwark against communist insurgency, this new body had some security dimensions. (5) Yet it was still principally a means to support the broader state and nation-building projects of societies newly liberated from European and Japanese imperialism.

Since the mid-1990s, however, East Asian states have made up for lost time and have created a wide range of multilateral processes and institutions with security as a key part of their purpose and rationale. This began with the foundation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994 and has developed remarkably over the past two decades. East Asia has gone from being under-resourced to having an abundance of multilateral security processes. From the ARF to the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), from the East Asia Summit (EAS) to the US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD), the search for what some have taken to calling a multilateral regional security architecture has been very active. (6)

Analysts and scholars often point out that these multilateral mechanisms have not yet had an especially strong substantive impact on the security policies of many Asian states. This is largely because most of these states continue with traditional, defence and security policies, as reflected by the fact that the US-led alliance system--a series of bilateral military relationships with key regional powers--remains the most significant feature of the region's security setting. (7) Nonetheless, the enthusiasm with which multilateral mechanisms have been embraced reflects at a minimum a regional acceptance of the norm of collaboration on a multilateral basis in this most sensitive of policy areas. Because of that acceptance, examining how China engages with security cooperation provides a distinct perspective on those larger questions about its attitude towards the prevailing international order. Indeed, as this article demonstrates, the binary nature of the basic proposition--that China either accepts the status quo or is intent upon overthrowing it--is not an especially helpful way of making sense of the kind of international role China is carving out for itself. There are aspects of the existing international arrangements which it finds conducive, some about which it is ambivalent and some which it would like to change.

To gain a more nuanced sense of the kind of security actor China is becoming, this article examines Beijing's engagement with the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The SLD takes its name from the Singapore hotel at which it has been held every year since 2002. It is regarded as the Asia-Pacific's pre-eminent forum for defence diplomacy, and is one of the most strongly supported multilateral mechanisms in the region. (8) It is an annual meeting of defence ministers from Asia and beyond (the United Kingdom, Germany and France regularly send high level delegations), as well as senior military officers and often intelligence and parliamentary figures. It is formally a "Track 1" process, involving government delegations, but includes a wide range of participants normally associated with "Track 2" gatherings, such as scholars, analysts, journalists and civil society representatives. It is run by the London-based think-tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and is intended to provide a neutral venue in which senior figures from across the region can meet to discuss areas of common concern. The Dialogue entails on the record plenary sessions in which usually defence ministers make formal policy speeches followed by a moderated open question and answer session. There are breakout or "special" sessions in which more detailed, specific policy issues--such as the future of North Korea, the place of ASEAN in the emerging security order, or the impact of new military capabilities in the Asia Pacific--are discussed in a more intimate setting among a smaller number (i.e. approximately 30-40) of SLD delegates. (9) Government officials attending the Dialogue also undertake often significant numbers of closed door bilateral and mini-lateral meetings on the sidelines of the plenary sessions. For many governments, its appeal lies less in the opportunity to signal policy through the plenaries and more in the chance to undertake in a very efficient manner meetings with key countries from the region and beyond.

Of Asia's many multilateral mechanisms, the SLD is particularly useful for examining China's approach for a number of reasons. First, its institutional neutrality and non-outcome focused structure provides a venue in which China can participate on its own terms. Second, with thirteen Dialogues completed there is a reasonable time-frame to examine and from which to draw credible conclusions. Third, given the SLD's standing as among the most significant multilateral security collaborations in Asia, it is a useful indicator of regional states' attitudes towards the prevailing norms and practices of security.

The purpose of this article is to examine China's engagement with the SLD with a view to drawing conclusions about the nature of China's stance towards security multilateralism. This attitude can be seen as a useful proxy for assessing China's approach to the prevailing security order, and thus the conclusions it draws can tentatively contribute to the broader debate about whether China's approach follows mainstream approaches in Asia or whether it is an outlier.

The article is in three parts. The first examines China and multilateralism. It develops a typology consisting of four stylized characterizations of how China could be approaching its participation in regional multilateralism. This provides the framework that will be used in the second part of the article, which sets out an empirical analysis of China's interaction with the SLD, charting its evolution from a reluctant and prickly participant to an increasingly confident and vocal presence. The final part of the article will summarize the findings of the analysis and offer some conclusions about Beijing's future engagement with the SLD, its broader approach to security multilateralism and what this tells us about whether China is a "status quo" or a "revisionist" rising power.

China and Multilateralism

At the simple level of participation China is as active and engaged in Asian security multilateralism as any of the region's major powers. (10) It is a member of the following groupings that have security as at least part of their remit: the ARF, ASEAN Plus Three (APT), the ADMM-Plus, the EAS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Participation in multilateral processes has been a key part of its foreign policy normalization programme through the 1990s and beyond. (11) In the early 1990s, for instance, Beijing was highly suspicious of the emergence of multilateral processes in the Asia Pacific, fearing that these could be used as forums in which other powers would "gang up" against an emerging China. Those suspicions appeared to dissipate somewhat by the mid-1990s as China began experimenting with engagement in groupings such as the ARF and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP). By the late 1990s and early 2000s, China was initiating and hosting multilateral security gatherings, most notably the Six-Party Talks process.

Rather than simply documenting this engagement, a primary purpose of this article is to contribute to our understanding of how the region's most important rising power approaches security multilateralism. To help structure the analysis we have developed four stylized interpretations of ways in which China might approach security multilateralism: as a "blocker"; as "socialized"; as "shaper"; and as "opportunistic". By using these four characterizations we can more systematically assess how China has approached the SLD and also develop a greater sense of the nuance in Chinese policy.

Before proceeding, a couple of points on methodology are worth mentioning. This article does not attempt to unpack the policymaking process and the various policy actors which together contribute to China's approach to the SLD. There is an extensive body of work highlighting the importance of these various actors to an understanding of Chinese foreign policy more generally. (12) Such disaggregation is arguably much less pertinent and necessary when considering Beijing's approach to the SLD, however, which is reportedly highly centralized in formulation and which in its implementation involves a relatively small, tightly controlled group of officials, predominantly from the People's Liberation Army (PLA). This high degree of centralization is, indeed, one of the more appealing reasons for undertaking a case study of China's approach to the SLD, in that it potentially offers crucial insights into thinking at the highest levels of Chinese government on security multilateralism.

The article itself is based upon a combination of primary and secondary sources. Both authors have been regular participants in the SLD over the course of the past half-decade. Much of the material has been gleaned from approximately thirty to forty interviews which have been undertaken--many "on the record", some on background in the interests of promoting candor and protecting the anonymity of governmental participants--over this period. As this is the first detailed scholarly analysis that has been produced thus far examining China's engagement with the SLD, the authors' have also relied heavily upon extensive press coverage and a handful of shorter length policy papers and analyses which have been published since the Dialogue's establishment.


It is important to start by recognizing that not all participants in multilateral processes participate for their publicly stated reasons. Indeed the business of statecraft is often a complex process in which motives and goals can be extremely difficult to discern. For some, hiding the underlying motives behind a policy can be a high imperative while others mean exactly what they say. Just as states can join multilateral mechanisms to advance particular interests, they can also take part to ensure that the institution does not achieve its goals or aims.

One of the fundamental dilemmas of modern international relations is that states are formally equal, yet substantively power is unevenly distributed. Thus China and Kiribati both have the same formal standing in the international system yet they could not be more differently endowed. Multilateralism has become such a significant part of the international order, and not just in the security domain, because of the way in which it allows the powerful to have significant influence (such as the role of the Permanent Five in the United Nations Security Council) while also providing a platform for the lesser members of international society to have some say in events. Multilateralism is the latest effort to ensure that outcomes at the international level are not purely the product of raw power politics. But in allowing states a seat at the table and a stake in decision-making, multilateralism also allows states to stymie activity. As Evelyn Goh has recently observed "institutions can be mooted by both powerful and weak states, which have different reasons for valuing them: the powerful to legitimize unequal power, and the weak to tame preponderant power". (13) Moreover, the "taming" function of multilateral institutions is not confined specifically to small and so-called middle powers. As Goh has written elsewhere "great powers can use these institutions as political arenas for containing, constraining, diluting or blocking each other's power". (14)

A first characterization of China's engagement with the SLD is thus as a "blocker" or wrecker. Here China is seen as taking part not because it accepts the underlying values and goals of the mechanism or institution, but because it wants to retard if not halt the collaborative efforts. It participates because it feels it has no choice but does so with the aim of undermining or subverting the overarching goals. A state acting as a blocker would be a reluctant participant whose attendance or participation is uneven and at a lower level or scale than its peers. It would be unenthusiastic, showing uneven engagement. Perhaps the most notable attribute of the blocker is an often quite niggardly attitude towards the structures and processes of the institution to stymie collaborative efforts.

Socialized Participant

One of the greatest effects of multilateral institutions and processes is said to be their power to change the behaviour of participants. (15) By getting members to agree to a set of rules and principles intended to advance a common set of goals, multilateralism changes the way they behave by constraining policy choices. Members join largely because of the payoffs that participation is thought to provide and see these as worth forgoing other policy options. The World Trade Organization (WTO), for instance, is one of the most onerous multilateral institutions in the world in the sense that joining the Geneva-based body comes with a very substantial set of obligations and commitments related to the often sensitive area of trade policy. No one is forced to join, although more than two-thirds of the member states of the UN have. They do so because they believe that the economic benefits that accrue from membership are worth the price of curtailing trade policy choice. In this sense multilateralism changes behaviour because of the instrumental benefits it provides.

Yet for many, multilateralism's real power comes not from narrow cost-benefit thinking but from the values and ideas which it embodies. Here the real strength of a multilateral process is its capacity to "socialize" the members in modes of thought and habits of mind that reflect underlying values that in turn change behaviour. Supporters argue that this is more substantive and longer lasting than narrow interest-based approaches. (16) Socialization, in which members of multilateral processes change their behaviour and policy choices due to the incorporation of the values, principles and goals of the process, is a core goal of many regional and global institutions.

This is the second of our stylized depictions: China's engagement with the SLD shows a country that is being socialized in its security policy dealings through its participation in the multilateral process. A state that is socialized by its participation would exhibit a number of obvious traits. It would be strongly supportive of the institution, it would engage in a manner that would be expected of it by others--most multilateral processes have differing expectations and roles for states of greater and lesser power--and would also exhibit behaviour that reflected acceptance of the underlying values and principles of the institution or process.


As a country's confidence in a multilateral institution grows--particularly if that country's economic and strategic weight is also on the rise--it is not uncommon to see that country seeking to "socialize" or to "shape" the operating modalities of the institution. This process can often prove difficult to observe and to document empirically. Multilateral participants pursuing such a path will often undertake such efforts by exercising a high degree of subtlety and discretion, fearing that anything other than the most indirect of approaches could potentially provoke a reaction from another participant(s) with a direct stake in the institution. However, examples of China seeking to socialize other multilateral processes from within do exist. Perhaps the clearest of these involve Beijing's strategy of cultivating an alliance of emerging BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies within the G20 framework. (17)

The China as "shaper" characterization envisages an increasingly confident Beijing seeking to socialize the operating modalities of the SLD from within. It may do so through building coalitions with likeminded participants, as it has done in the G20 and as the United States, Japan and Australia have done with some success in the SLD itself. (18) More likely, given China's preference to avoid alliance-type relationships, it would do so through seeking to influence the agenda of the SLD. We would expect these and similar efforts to generally be subtle and indirect so as not to provoke a reaction harmful to Beijing's interests from Washington and Tokyo in particular.

Opportunistic Participant

The first three depictions see China as either caught up in the institutional intent of multilateralism or separating itself from that intent and seeking to use the process for its own ends. The fourth charts a path between these various positions and sees China as taking part in security cooperation opportunistically.

Although China now has the world's largest economy in purchasing-power-parity terms, (19) in many respects it retains many of the attributes of a developing economy. Its GDP per capita remains firmly middle to low income, its governance and administrative capacities are constrained and its traditional hard power resources are still decades behind the United States and other industrialized states. It remains focused very heavily on its many internal challenges and as a result of this its capacity and willingness to engage with international policy is not in keeping with what one might expect of a more traditional major power. More importantly, although it has moved a long way from the revolutionary foreign policy traditions of Mao's time, it remains skeptical about the dominant security order in Asia and the capacity of these arrangements to advance China's interests in the longer run. (20)

The "opportunistic participant" is one which engages with security cooperation in a selective manner to take advantage where it is available and see off risk where possible, but remaining aloof from the underlying values and principles associated with collaboration. An opportunistic participant would not be systematically engaged in a consistent manner. It would take advantage of situations that suited its interests but resist some obligations. However, the opportunistic state is prepared to adhere to the rules of the collaborative game if it feels it serves a larger purpose.

China and the Shangri-La Dialogue

Viewed through the lens of each of the four approaches to security multilateralism outlined above, what does China want from its engagement with the SLD? Why is it even taking part in a forum that many Chinese analysts believe supports an international order rigged against it? (21)


The view that China would act as a "blocker" in its approach to the SLD seems an obvious place to begin and it has, indeed, been a persistent theme in previous interpretations of China's approach, particularly during the Dialogue's earliest days. Since the formation of the SLD, China's potential to block the Dialogue's progress--and potentially even its very existence--has rested on the possibility of Beijing refusing to send high-level officials or to even attend. The respected scholar of Asian security Barry Desker has highlighted "the importance of Chinese participation if a meaningful exchange is to occur". (22) A Dialogue on regional security that did not include Chinese participation would be hollow indeed, and this gives China some potential leverage over the forum itself.

Beijing appeared to make good on its threat to boycott the SLD when it failed to send any official representatives to the third gathering of the grouping in 2004. While the reasons for this have never been articulated officially, it has been interpreted as a protest against the fact that officials from Taiwan were in attendance at the Dialogue in 2003. (23) Beijing appeared to continue to act as a "blocker" during the 2005 and 2006 meetings, both of which were particularly testy affairs. While Chinese attendance at each of these SLDs remained relatively small, their delegation--which included, most notably, now-Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai--publicly and forcefully refuted claims regarding the lack of transparency in Chinese military spending made by then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in his address. These exchanges, in turn, led prominent Chinese analysts to publicly question the merits of their country's participation. (24)

Blocking behaviour is evident beyond what it does at the actual Dialogues, perhaps most obviously in its attempts to construct alternative fora to the SLD. The earliest example of this occurred in November 2003, when Beijing proposed a new grouping, the ARF Security Policy Conference (SPC), that would bring together defence ministry officials from the twenty-four ARF countries and which would initially be hosted in Beijing. The journalist Michael Vatikiotis reported at the time that "diplomats in the region say the real motivation for the proposal is more than conversation. Chinese officials are quite uncomfortable with what they see as too much American influence in security forums, so they are trying to start a separate track ... Of particular annoyance is the Shangri-La Dialogue." (25)

A more recent manifestation of this approach has been Beijing's November 2014 upgrading of a Chinese-led defence dialogue known as the Xiangshan Forum, which some commentators see as an emergent competitor to the SLD. Bonnie Glaser, a respected analyst from the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International

Studies (CSIS) goes even further, characterizing the Xiangshan Forum as an effort to directly undermine the SLD. (26) Prior to the November 2014 gathering of this grouping, the Xiangshan Forum was held biannually and at the Track 2 (or unofficial) level. Organized by the government-affiliated China Military Sciences Society and under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, the November 2014 Xiangshan Forum included a keynote address delivered by China's Defence Minister, Chang Wanquan. A key theme running through the Dialogue was the notion that Asian security should be made for and by "Asians", as first officially elaborated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in May 2014. (27) If this were to be realized it would have significant negative consequences for the SLD and indeed the United States and its allies. (28)


Despite this evidence supporting the China as "blocker" characterization, an intriguing feature of Beijing's participation over the life of the SLD has been, somewhat paradoxically, one of broadening participation and deepening engagement in a forum which purportedly causes it considerable discomfort. Indeed, despite the relatively widespread view that Chinese withdrawal could potentially deal a fatal blow to the SLD, Beijing has thus far opted not to withdraw--aside from its non-attendance at the third SLD--instead it has steadily deepened its engagement in a manner that has served only to increase the Dialogue's importance as a feature of the region's still-evolving security architecture.

A sharp upward turn in Chinese participation at the SLD in 2007 marked a key turning point in this regard and lends some support to the view that Beijing has been socialized by its participation in this process. In June of that year, Deputy Chief of General Staff for the PLA, Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng, became the first senior official to attend and address the gathering. The decision to upgrade participation was reportedly made at the highest levels of the Chinese government, the Central Military Commission, which at that time was headed by Chinese President Hu Jintao. (29) Of most significance, while Zhang's speech to the Dialogue did not shy away completely from criticizing the "Cold War mindset" of the United States, it contained an announcement that China and America would be opening a new telephone link or "hotline" to deal with crisis situations. This was a mechanism that US officials had been on record as requesting for the previous five years; Zhang's remarks were the first time that Beijing had publicly committed to the initiative. (30)

Of equal significance, in 2007 Beijing also reportedly agreed to send senior officials to future gatherings of the SLD. Perhaps most importantly, socialization was evident in Beijing behaving in a manner more like other SLD participants. In 2011, for instance, General Liang Guanglie became the first Chinese defence minister to attend and to address the Dialogue. Chinese participation not only deepened but also broadened at this juncture as Liang met on the Dialogue's sidelines with counterparts from a number of other national delegations, including those of Australia, India, Japan, Russia and Vietnam. Significantly, he met with then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for an hour in advance of the Dialogue. Although starting stiffly, Liang also took questions from the floor following his speech to the Dialogue, including on Beijing's South China Sea policies, before saluting the audience at the end of his allotted session. (31)


Some analysts have attributed China's growing engagement with the SLD to rising levels of confidence and even assertiveness. (32) Indeed, consistent with its behaviour in some other multilateral settings --where engagement has led in time to attempts to change the behaviour of others--there is also evidence to support the China as "shaper" typology. As it has done in other forums such as the second track CSCAP, for instance, Beijing's approach to Taiwanese participation in the SLD is an example of its capacity to shape and "socialize" the modus operandi of multilateral forums. In response to China's boycott of the 2004 SLD, for instance, the IISS developed a formula that enabled yet still limited Taiwanese participation. This involved an arrangement whereby Taiwanese participants were allowed to attend but they could not be officials, nor were they allowed to meet bilaterally with any other national delegations. (33)

In recent years, Beijing has sought to "shape" the agenda of the SLD by sending one of the strongest national delegations to the "Sherpa" meeting of the SLD, known as the Fullerton Forum. (34) However, perhaps the clearest evidence of Beijing seeking to influence the SLD occurred in 2013, when the Chinese delegation engaged in a "charm offensive" that many observers saw as significantly outperforming the approaches taken by other national delegations. (35) The approach of the Chinese delegation in 2013 was highly coordinated, while Beijing's presence on the agenda was much broader than it had been previously with Chinese delegates addressing three other special sessions outside of the speech delivered by their lead delegate, Lieutenant-General Qi Jianguo Of particular note, one member of the Chinese delegation, Major-General Yao Yunzhu, became a minor media celebrity due to the prominent role she played in the 2013 SLD, articulately challenging the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung during questions following his keynote address on the opening night, as well as publicly pressing then US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel after his speech the following morning. (36)

There is some evidence that Beijing tried to employ a similar approach in 2014, particularly through the inclusion in its delegation of the high profile senior diplomat Fu Ying. (37) Yet contrary to this intent, the most notable feature of China's participation in the 2014 SLD was the nine-minute "unscripted" riposte delivered by the leader of the Chinese delegation, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong. Wang criticized earlier speeches given by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Secretary Hagel, employing some of the strongest language ever used at the SLD. With particular reference to Hagel, Wang charged that his was a "speech with tastes of hegemony, a speech with expressions of coercion and intimidation, a speech with flaring rhetoric that usher destabilising factors into the Asia-Pacific to stir up trouble, and a speech with unconstructive attitude". (38) In contrast to the "charm offensive" of 2013, therefore, Wang's remarks gave rise to commentary speculating that the Asia-Pacific region may be headed towards a new Cold War and possibly even open hostilities. (39)


While Chinese participation has unquestionably broadened and deepened over the life of the SLD, this 2014 episode was by no means an aberration in Beijing's approach of recent years. At the 2010 SLD, for instance, Chinese delegates were reportedly intent upon keeping a low profile against the backdrop of renewed tensions in Sino-US relations sparked by the Obama Administration's announcement of a new arms sales package to Taiwan in January of that year. (40) Similarly, in 2012, for reasons that have never fully been explained, China also sent a small, relatively low-level delegation to the Dialogue that was headed by Lieutenant-General Ren Haiquan, who held the position of Deputy Commandant of the Chinese Academy of Military Science. While there was some speculation that this downgrading in Chinese participation was a reaction to criticism that Beijing's South China Sea policies had encountered from the Philippine and Vietnamese defence ministers at the 2011 SLD, an alternative interpretation is that Beijing did not want to have a senior official being publicly quizzed in the midst of its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, particularly against the backdrop of the Bo Xilai affair that was continuing to unfold at that time. (41)

Do these ebbs and flows in Beijing's engagement with the SLD suggest China is behaving as an "opportunistic participant", rather than in the more consistent or even strategic manner suggested by the other three characterizations proposed in this article? Supporting this proposition, Beijing certainly derives practical benefits from its participation in the Dialogue, notwithstanding the view still held by some Chinese analysts that the SLD is stacked against it. The Dialogue does, after all, offer China a high-profile platform from which it can criticize elements of the regional security order with which it is most unhappy. Indeed, if there has been any consistent feature of Beijing's approach over the life of the SLD it has been its very public criticism of what it perceives to be Washington's outdated and unduly confrontational approach to security in the region.

In more recent years, Japan and Vietnam have also been singled out for similar Chinese criticism. In some respects, however, these particular examples have typically been more reactive in nature, responding directly to criticism that China has received within the SLD rather than instances of opportunistically taking advantage of this prominent regional platform. That said, and more in keeping with the "opportunistic participant" characterization, Beijing has on occasion attempted to utilize the SLD as a venue for seeing off risk through reassuring the region as to the peaceful intentions underpinning China's rise. Minister Liang's 2011 address to the Dialogue, for instance, emphasized the substantial gap in military capabilities between the PLA and the US armed forces to reinforce this point. The fact that Liang remains the only Chinese defence minister to have attended the SLD further supports the idea that China's involvement remains limited and opportunistic as it continues to resist one of the Dialogue's well-established norms that national delegations are typically led by someone of ministerial rank.


Beijing's approach to the SLD contains elements of all four of the characterizations of China's approach to security multilateralism outlined in the first part of this article, although the explanatory power of each of these depictions has varied over the life of the Dialogue. Particularly during the early years of the SLD, for instance, there were a considerable number of instances of Beijing seeking to undermine or obstruct the Dialogue's progress. Yet the fact that China has attended and participated in all but one early SLD--thereby, somewhat ironically, enhancing the Dialogue's profile and purpose --obviously suggests something more complex than obstructionism going on. The period since 2007 has seen a gradual broadening and deepening of Chinese participation in the SLD, suggesting instead that Beijing has become more of a "socialized participant" in the grouping. In more recent years, there is even some evidence of Beijing actively seeking to shape the Dialogue, with varying levels of success. That said, the sporadic nature of Chinese engagement across this period calls into question both the "socialized" and "shaper" characterizations, which in turn raises the possibility that Beijing could simply be engaging with the SLD as an "opportunistic participant".

While the "opportunistic participant" characterization is thus perhaps the most convincing of those put forward in this article, its explanatory power is not sufficiently compelling to dismiss evidence of each of the other depiction at play. This conclusion suggests that China's engagement with the SLD will continue to be uneven, but that Beijing will nonetheless remain engaged. To be sure, this is due primarily to the practical benefits that Beijing associates with its participation, including the capacity that the SLD affords it to publicly critique those aspects of regional order with which it is especially dissatisfied. Beijing also recognizes the potential opportunity costs of not being involved, particularly in terms of foregoing representation at the Dialogue to defend China's corner in the face of external criticism. In other words, by simply turning up, Beijing hedges against the possibility of the

SLD becoming a truly anti-China forum that becomes even more anathema to its interests.

To the extent that the SLD serves as a useful lens for deciphering the broader contours of Chinese foreign and security policy, this latter observation suggests that Beijing's engagement with the process is not especially consistent with either the "status quo" or the "revisionist" characterizations so often employed to make projections about what type of great power China will become. Instead, the record of China's engagement with this influential grouping points more towards the absence of any clearly defined path on Beijing's part. It suggests a rising power that is willing to experiment, significantly upgrading its engagement at particular junctures but periodically pulling back from these should the "experiment" not go to plan or should domestic imperatives dictate otherwise. It suggests a rising power that is largely reactive in nature, that is willing to downgrade its participation or to develop new avenues for engagement--such as the ARF, NPC and the Xiangshan Forum --when things do not go its way. Related to this, and perhaps most significantly, the history of Beijing's engagement with the SLD also paints the picture of a highly pragmatic rising power, one that is intent upon maximizing the benefits to be accrued from a process which it feels less than comfortable with, while at the same time working in a concerted manner to subvert the worst effects of that process as far as China's own national interests are concerned. Neither Realists who see China involved in an inevitable clash with the prevailing order nor liberals who feel that institutional structures and processes can fundamentally transform China should take comfort from these findings.

DOI: 10.1355/cs37-1b


(1) See, for example, John J. Mearsheimer The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: WW Norton, 2014).

(2) Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: WW Norton, 2010).

(3) G. John Ikenberry, "The Illusion of Geopolitics: The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order", Foreign Affairs 93, no. 3 (May-June 2014): 80-90.

(4) The seminal piece here is Alastair Iain Johnston, "Is China a Status Quo Power?", International Security 27, no. 4 (Spring 2003): 5-56. See also Feng Huiyun, "Is China a Revisionist Power?", The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, issue 3, (2009): 313-34; John J. Mearsheimer, "Can China Rise Peacefully?", The National Interest, 25 October 2014; and G. John Ikenberry, "The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive?", Foreign Affairs 87, no. 1 (January-February 2008): 23-37.

(5) See Shaun Narine, Explaining ASEAN: Regionalism in Southeast Asia (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2002).

(6) On which see Chapter One in Asia's New Multilateralism: Cooperation, Competition and the Search for Community, edited by Michael Green and Bates Gill, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

(7) Nick Bisley, Building Asia's Security (London: Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2009): 12.

(8) David Capie and Brendan Taylor, "The Shangri-La Dialogue and the institutionalization of defence diplomacy in Asia", The Pacific Review 23, no. 3 (July 2010): 360.

(9) Initially, these sessions were off the record but in recent years they have been opened up and are now officially on the record discussions.

(10) One should draw a distinction between the attitude of major powers towards security cooperation and other members of international society. The incentives for lesser powers to participate in multilateralism is much greater than major powers. In Asia most of the policy entrepreneurship around multilateralism has come from middle ranking and minor powers.

(11) On which see Chapter Two in Bates Gill, Rising Star: China's New Security Diplomacy, (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2007).

(12) See, for example, Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox, "New Foreign Policy Actors in China", SIPRI Policy Paper 26, (September 2010), available at <http://books. RIPP26.pdf>.

(13) Evelyn Goh, The Struggle For Order: Hegemony, Hierarchy, and Transition in Post-Cold War East Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 31.

(14) Evelyn Goh, "Evaluating Southeast Asia Responses to China's Rise: The Vital Context of Managing Great Power Resurgence", in China's Power and Asian Security edited by Mingjiang Li and Kalyan M. Kemburi (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015), p. 201.

(15) See John Gerard Ruggie, "Multilateralism: the anatomy of an institution" in Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form, edited by John Gerard Ruggie (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 3-36.

(16) See, for example, Alastair Iain Johnston, Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980-2000 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).

(17) Joel Wuthnow, Xin Li and Lingling Qi, "Diverse Multilateralism: Four Strategies in China's Multilateral Diplomacy", Journal of Chinese Political Science 17, issue 3 (September 2012): 282-85.

(18) Robert Ayson, "Japan steals the show at the Shangri-La Dialogue", East Asian Forum, 13 June 2014, available at < japan-steals-the-show-at-the-shangri-la-dialogue/>.

(19) See "China's Back", The Economist, 11 October 2014.

(20) See Minxin Pei, "China's Asia?", Project Syndicate, 3 December 2014, available at <>.

(21) Goh Sui Noi, "No high-level Beijing team as forum seen as anti-China", Straits Times, 5 June 2006.

(22) Barry Desker, "Shangri-La Dialogue: Fraught between giants", Straits Times, 11 June 2012.

(23) "China Steers Clear of Security Meets", Far Eastern Economic Review, 17 June 2004.

(24) Goh, "No high-level Beijing team as forum seen as anti-China", op. cit.

(25) Michael Vatikiotis, "Military Alliances--A Diplomatic Offensive: In Southeast Asia and throughout the Pacific, China is trying to increase its influence in military and strategic affairs; The idea may be to displace the US in regional security matters", Far Eastern Economic Review, 5 August 2014. The ARF SPC continues to meet annually, with the 11th gathering of the grouping hosted by Myanmar in June 2014. However, it has not achieved anywhere near the same level of prominence as the SLD.

(26) Bonnie Glaser, "Notes from the Xiangshan Forum", Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 25 November 2014.

(27) See, for example, Xi Jinping, "New Asian security concept for new progress in security cooperation", Remarks at the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, Shanghai, 21 May 2014, available at <>.

(28) For further reading on the Xiangshan Forum see Ankit Panda, "China Creates New 'Asia for Asians' Security Forum", The Diplomat, 15 September 2014, available at <>.

(29) Goh Sui Noi, "PLA embarks on a slow journey to transparency", Straits Times, 7 June 2007.

(30) Greg Torode, "PLA commits to US-China defence hotline", South China Morning Post, 3 June 2007.

(31) Greg Torode, "China's pledges fail to convince security forum: Philippines and Vietnam challenge defence minister's assurances over South China Sea", South China Morning Post, 6 June 2011.

(32) Goh Sui Noi, "China Sends Top Official To Attend and Address Summit--Move Shows a More Confident and Assertive China, Say Experts", Straits Times, 2 June 2007.

(33) Capie and Taylor, "The Shangri-La Dialogue and the institutionalization of defence diplomacy in Asia", op. cit., p. 363.

(34) The first Fullerton Forum was held in February 2013 and it has been held annually since then at the beginning of each year. As its name suggests, it is held at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore. The forum brings together nongovernmental strategic analysts (including senior IISS staff) with senior officials and military officers. Its primary function is to provide "intellectual support" by testing policy ideas and setting the agenda for the forthcoming SLD.

(35) See, for example, Adam Entous and Chun Han Wong, "Chinese, U.S. Commanders Loosen Up", Wall Street Journal, 3 June 2013.

(36) "Woman general makes her mark", Straits Times, 2 June 2013.

(37) Nick Bisley and Brendan Taylor, "Shangri-La Dialogue: Beijing's Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove", The Diplomat, 27 May 2014, available at <http://thediplomat. com/2014/05/shangri-la-dialogue-beijings-iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove/>.

(38) Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief, General Staff Department, People's Liberation Army, China, "Foster an Security Concept for Asia and Jointly Work for a Bright Future of Asia-Pacific", Speech at 13th Shangri-La Dialogue, 1 June 2014, available at < Events/Shangri-La%20Dialogue/SLD%2014/Wang.pdf>.

(39) See, for example, Barry Desker, "A new cold war?", Straits Times, 11 June 2014.

(40) Bonnie Glaser, "Debunking Myths about US Arms Sales to Taiwan", PacNet, no. 6, 17 February 2010, available at < taiwan>.

(41) John Lee, "Beijing Shrugs at Shangri-La", The Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2012.

Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University. Postal address: La Trobe University, Bundoora VIC 3086, Australia; email:

Brendan Taylor is Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Postal address: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Hedley Bull Building 130, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia; email:
COPYRIGHT 2015 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bisley, Nick; Taylor, Brendan
Publication:Contemporary Southeast Asia
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2015
Previous Article:Sovereignty and the sea: President Joko Widodo's foreign policy challenges.
Next Article:The future maritime security environment in Asia: a risk assessment approach.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters