Shangri-La Dialogue Highlights Tensions in Sino-U.S. Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 13

Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian

Strained relations between the United States and China took center stage during the June 4-6 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore, the annual meeting of Asia Pacific defense ministers, military officers, diplomats and academics organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and attended by this author. The main points of contention that emerged between the two sides were how the international community should deal with North Korea in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The SLD also shone a spotlight on growing U.S. wariness at Chinese policy toward the contested Spratly Islands, and revealed how the South China Sea disputes have become a sticking point in Sino-U.S. relations.

On North Korea, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was uncompromising. Describing the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives as “part of a larger pattern of provocative and reckless behavior,” Gates asserted that the incident required a tough regional response, as “inaction would amount to an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia [1].” His comment was seen as a swipe at the PRC, which has refused to assign blame to its North Korean ally for the attack. Indeed, in the question and answer session that followed Gates’ speech, Major General Zhu Chenghu, director-general of the National Defense University in Beijing, appeared to cast doubt on the conclusions of the international team that investigated the sinking that the North Korean military was responsible for torpedoing the vessel by describing “controversial views” over who carried out the attack. Zhu went on to imply that America’s stance over the Cheonan was hypocritical given its failure to condemn the Israeli commando raid on a flotilla of ships carrying supplies to Gaza on May 31, which resulted in the death of nine activists. Clearly surprised by Zhu’s comment, Gates flatly rejected the comparison, describing the Cheonan incident as a surprise attack while Israel had issued the Turkish ship with warnings. The intemperate exchange set the tone for the rest of the day’s proceedings between the Chinese and Americans.

More controversial was Gates’ defense of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. In January, the Obama administration approved a $6.4 billion arms package to the island, which includes surface-to-air Patriot missiles, medium-lift Blackhawk helicopters and anti-ship Harpoon missiles. In keeping with past practice, Beijing condemned the decision and suspended military-to-military ties with the United States. This included rejecting a request from Gates prior to his trip to Singapore to visit Beijing after the SLD because the timing was “inconvenient.”

Gates’ speech at the SLD reflected U.S. disappointment and frustration with China’s decision to freeze military relations. The defense secretary accused the Chinese of reneging on a pledge made by Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao in late 2009 to advance “sustained and reliable” military-to-military relations at all levels so as to develop bilateral ties and reduce “miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miscalculation,” exemplified by the March 2009 Impeccable incident off Hainan Island. Gates said China’s decision “makes little sense” because the United States has been providing weapons systems to Taiwan for decades, Washington does not support independence for Taiwan, and that arms sales help maintain the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait in the face of “China’s accelerating military buildup [which is] largely focused on Taiwan.” The suspension of military ties by China would not, moreover, change U.S. policy toward Taiwan. In short, Gates’ message to the Chinese on U.S. arms sales was blunt: Get over it.

The Chinese delegates bristled at Gates’ speech, and responded by pointing the finger of blame squarely at Washington for the suspension of military ties. Major-General Zhu described the arms package as having caused damage to China’s “core interests” and that while the Chinese treat the United States as a partner and friend, “Americans take the Chinese as the enemy.” In a robust presentation to the SLD delegates later that morning, General Ma Xiaotian, the PLA’s Deputy Chief of Staff, rejected all of Gates’ assertions. According to Ma, it was America and not China that had erected obstacles in the way of military cooperation, namely the provision of weapons to Taiwan, U.S. military surveillance activities in China’s declared 200 nautical miles Excusive Economic Zone, and US domestic legislation which curbed cooperation with the PLA. Ma went on to label US arms sales to the island as “not normal” and a gross interference in China’s internal affairs. General Ma also rejected Gates’ contention that China’s military build-up was directed at Taiwan (Xinhua News Agency, June 6).

Although Ma and Gates finally shook hands on the second day of the SLD― having failed to do so at the opening dinner the night before― in a departure from previous practice, no bilateral meetings took place on the sidelines of the conference.

The testy exchanges between Gates and the Chinese generals in Singapore came hard on the heels of another frosty meeting between the two sides at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in late May in Beijing. According to one report, at that meeting the PLA’s Rear Admiral Guen Youfei had launched a scathing attack on the United States, accusing it of being a hegemonic power bent on encircling China (Washington Post, June 8). The report suggested that Guan had not gone out on a limb, and that his comments reflected mainstream thinking in the Chinese government. A delegate at the SLD familiar with the meeting confirmed to the author that the atmospherics at the Beijing meeting had been very poor [2].

Of direct relevance to the security of Southeast Asia were Gates’ remarks concerning the changing strategic context of the South China Sea dispute. As noted by contributors to the Jamestown Foundation, tensions in the South China Sea have been on the upswing since 2007 due to a combination of rising nationalism, increasing friction over access to energy and fishery resources, attempts by the various disputants to bolster their jurisdictional claims, and the rapid modernization of the PLA Navy which is shifting the military balance of power in China’s favor [3].

At SLD, Gates highlighted the territorial dispute as an “area of growing concern for the United States.” He reiterated long-standing U.S. policy― that America has a vital interest in the maintenance of stability and freedom of navigation in the sea, does not take sides on competing sovereignty claims, and opposes the use of force to resolve the problem. Yet he added that the United States objected “to any effort to intimidate U.S. corporations or those of any other nation engaged in legitimate economic activity,” a clear reference to attempts by the PRC to pressure foreign energy corporations― including U.S. giant ExxonMobil—into suspending oil and gas projects in disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast.

Gates went on to underscore the importance of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) as a mechanism to mitigate rising tensions. Conceived by ASEAN as a way of promoting dialogue and cooperative confidence building measures among the claimant countries, talks between the organization and China on formulating guidelines to implement the DoC stalled in 2009 over Beijing’s insistence that discussions could only proceed on a bilateral basis rather than with the ten member grouping as a whole, an approach rejected by ASEAN. According to Gates, the United States supports the “concrete implementation” of the agreement, a remark that can only be seen as Washington’s stamp of approval for Vietnam’s efforts as ASEAN Chair to break the diplomatic impasse and coax Beijing into putting the agreement into practice (See “China’s ‘Charm Offensive” Loses Momentum in Southeast Asia Part I,” China Brief, April 29, 2010.  

The message could not have been lost on the Chinese delegation that on the first day of the Dialogue Gates had met with his Vietnamese counterpart, and that after the conclusion of the conference Admiral Robert Willard, Commander U.S. Pacific Command, and Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, discussed the territorial dispute in Hanoi at annual bilateral security talks (VietNamNetBridge, June 8).

Gates’ comments on the South China Sea should be considered in conjunction with recent statements made by senior U.S. military officers regarding the impact of China’s military modernization on the dispute. In Congressional testimony in January, Admiral Willard suggested that China’s “aggressive program of military modernization” appeared designed to “challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region and, if necessary, enforce China’s influence over its neighbors — including our regional allies and partners” [4]. In a speech to the Asia Society in Washington D.C. on June 9, Admiral Mike Mullins, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed “genuine concern” at China’s military build up which, he argued,  seems “oddly out of step with their stated goal of territorial defense” [5]. A week later, Admiral Patrick Walsh, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told a Japanese newspaper that the United States was concerned that Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea risked endangering freedom of navigation and the flow of maritime trade (Asahi Shimbun [Japan], June 15).

From the perspective of governments in Southeast Asia, the current tribulations in Sino-U.S. relations are seen as boding ill for regional stability. Accordingly, Southeast Asians at the SLD highlighted the positive role ASEAN could play in promoting dialogue and trust among the major powers in the Asia Pacific region. It was in this context that Singapore Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean commented that the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus)—which will bring together the 10 ASEAN defense ministers and their counterparts from the eight Dialogue Partners, including China and the United States in October—would help ensure that “mistrust or disagreements do not lead to tensions, and tensions do not spiral into confrontation and conflict.” Yet SLD delegates pondered how effective the ADMM Plus could be at easing Sino-U.S. tensions if, as presently envisaged, it will only meet once every 2-3 years.


1. Dr. Robert M. Gates, Secretary of Defense, United States, speech delivered at 9th IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore, June 5, 2010
2. Interview with SLD delegate, June 5, 2010.
3. Clive Schofield and Ian Storey, The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions, Jamestown Foundation Occasional Paper, November 2009.
4. Statement of Admiral Robert F. Willard, United States Navy, Commander, United States Pacific Command, Before the House Armed Services Committee on Recent Security Developments Involving China, January 13, 2010.
5. Admiral Mullen’s Speech at the 2010 Asia Society Washington’s Annual Dinner