The 20th Shangri-La Dialogue: US-China Great Power Rivalry Takes Center Stage

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 12

Chinese Defense Minister General Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La Dialogue, source: AFP


The 20th Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), was held in Singapore from June 2 to 4. Having earned its reputation as one of Asia’s premier defense summits since it was founded in 2002, the forum serves as a platform to discuss and debate regional security issues in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to the Shangri-La’s main summit, another important role of the dialogue is for countries to engage in bilateral security talks on the sidelines. The gathering of multiple high-ranking military officials in one location presents governments with the rare opportunity to engage in bilateral security exchanges with numerous countries of interest.

Against the backdrop of escalating tensions and growing mistrust between the US and China, one of the SLD’s most highly anticipated bilateral talks were supposed to feature US Secretary of Defense Llyod J. Austin and China’s State Councilor and Defense Minister General Li Shangfu. Expectations regarding a possible meeting were especially high, given the US and Chinese presidents’ agreement in their November 2022 Bali meeting to “maintain strategic communication and conduct regular consultations” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China [PRC], November 14, 2022).

As Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese emphasized during his keynote address at the 2023 Dialogue, closed diplomatic and military lines of communication between Washington and Beijing, the world’s two foremost great powers, poses serious concerns for the international community.  Albanese reasoned that “big powers have a heavy responsibility to maintain stable and workable relations with one another. Because the alternative, the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze, only breeds suspicion, only makes it easier for nations to attribute motive to misunderstanding, to assume the worst of one another” (IISS, June 2).

With US-China relations deteriorating to their lowest point in decades, the SLD’s plenary addresses by the American and Chinese defense chiefs garnered significant international attention. Notably, it marked Austin’s second address at the SLD, while for Li, it was his inaugural international address since his appointment as China’s defense minister in March 2023. As such, analysts were closely monitoring Li’s remarks to see if they would reflect a tonal shift in Chinese foreign policy that could recalibrate the acrimonious state of US-Sino relations. However, after the SLD convened, the prevailing consensus was that no such reset took place. Not only did Li decline to meet with Austin, but he also expressed several thinly veiled criticisms towards Washington during his address, alluding to what Beijing perceived as a “Cold War mentality” and accusing the US of actively seeking alliances and blocs with the intention of encircling China. While ardent rebuttals between both countries’ defense ministers were present, the highly anticipated dialogue between the US and China was altogether absent from the SLD. Instead, what transpired at the SLD was a clear manifestation of strained US-China ties and great power rivalry.

No Talks, Only a Handshake

Going into the SLD, Washington aimed to conduct bilateral talks with Beijing to serve two key objectives. First, the US wished to set a floor to the rapid decline of US-China relations. Second, Washington expressed interest in restoring a direct line of communication with Beijing’s military to reduce the risk of conflict escalation. China, identifying Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as the primary impetus, suspended military-to-military talks with the US as of August 2022 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China [PRC], August 5, 2022). [1] More recently, the “Chinese Spy Balloon” incident culminated in US-China ties spiraling to a new low. Referring to the incident as “an irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip”, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his visit to China, a trip that was originally planned for February but was not rescheduled until June 18 (U. S. Department of State, February 3). [2]

In an effort to resume communication prior to the SLD, Washington proposed a meeting between the two defense chiefs in Singapore, which Beijing declined. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning stated that China would not resume talks until the US satisfied the following conditions:  “[1] earnestly respect China’s sovereignty, security and interest concerns, [2] immediately correct wrong practice, [3] show sincerity and create necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between Chinese and US militaries” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, May 30). Beijing further justified their decision to decline the meeting by citing the ongoing sanctions imposed on Li in 2018. At the time, Li was the director of the Chinese military’s Equipment Development Department (EDD) and consequently was targeted under section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) (U. S. Department of State, September 20, 2018).

On balance, Beijing’s rejection can be viewed from two distinct perspectives. First, the PRC’s refusal to hold a meeting with Austin signifies a continuation of Beijing’s recent practice of rejecting talks with the American defense minister, to punish Washington for its alleged “wrongdoings”. During February’s spy balloon incident, China refused the US’ proposal for a call between the two defense chiefs, citing that “Washington’s irresponsible wrongdoings failed to create an atmosphere for communication between the militaries of the two countries” (Global Times, February 9).

Second, Beijing’s refusal can be seen as a nationalistic appeal to stand up to the US and the hegemonic West. According to the view widely espoused by Chinese state media, Beijing’s rejection of US-proposed meetings are reasonable and justified, as agreeing to a meeting equates to acknowledging accountability for previous transgressions. For instance, during the spy balloon incident, Li Haidong posited that the US is “not sincere in hoping for ‘communication’ but instead… [is displaying] a disguised form of ‘coercion’” intended to portray China as an aggressor (Global Times, February 9). While at the SLD meeting, Song Zhongping argued that China’s decline of the US invitation is justified as “the ultimate goal [of the US] is not about the meeting itself, but making a hypocritical show for audiences both at home and abroad” (Global Times, May 30).

Ultimately, with no formal talks being held, only a brief handshake between Austin and Li was exhibited. In response to Beijing’s rejection, Austin, in his plenary address, criticized China by stating that “dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity. A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement.” Moreover, he argued “the more that we [the US and China] talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstanding” (IISS, June 3).  Meanwhile, General Li asserted that the US “needs to act with sincerity, match its words with deeds and take concrete actions together with China to stabilize the relations and prevent further deterioration” (China Daily, June 5).

With the US-China antagonism taking center stage, the SLD showcased the two countries’ ongoing great power rivalry, exhibited through the lens of two competing narratives to a broader international community. When directly juxtaposed, the plenary addresses of both Austin and Li represent an expression of their respective country’s grievances, positions, and warnings to the other party (see Table 1). Their speeches highlight the growing polarization between the two countries as it pertains to Indo-Pacific security, Taiwan, and the Russia-Ukraine War among other issues.

Table 1: Juxtaposing US and China’s Positions at SLD

Source: Author

Crossfire between US and China

Speaking at the first plenary session of the SLD on June 3, U. S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin categorically outlined America’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific “without coercion, intimidation, or bullying” (IISS, June 3).  While countries such as Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam were mentioned as America’s allies and partners, China was accused of conducting “an alarming number of risky intercepts of US and allied aircraft flying lawfully in international airspace”, as well as engaging in “coercion and bullying” (IISS, June 3).

However, the Chinese regarded these incursions as “a must to safeguard China’s national interests and security” (Global Times, June 3), stating that the US portrayal of China as a “bully” and “coercer” aims to enable and justify American interventionism. The Chinese side argued that the US seeks to promote an agenda of interference in China’s internal affairs by meddling in “domestic” issues such as the “Taiwan question” (Global Times, June 6). According to Senior Colonel Tan Kefei of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the US should be regarded as “solely responsible” for the “difficulty of communication”, arguing that “dialogue cannot be done without principles” (The South China Morning Post, June 1).

Taiwan was a reoccurring topic during the US-China crossfire. Austin’s address conveyed a clear message to Beijing, suggesting that while the American government “[does not] seek conflict or confrontation… [the US] will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.” He reaffirmed this principle as “especially important in the Taiwan Strait,” maintaining that a cross-Strait “conflict…would be devastating” (IISS, June 3).  China refuted Austin’s statements by accusing the American side of “ignoring facts and distorting the truth” on Taiwan. Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng of the PLA stated that “the US has continuously weakened and hollowed out the one-China principle, strengthened the so-called official exchanges with Taiwan, and condoned ‘Taiwan independence.’” Jing underscored that due the US’ allegedly revisionist behavior and intent to contain China, the PRC’s military operations around the Taiwan Strait are especially justified (Xinhua, June 4).

On June 4, General Li Shangfu’s SLD address should be contextualized as Beijing’s justification for refusing Washington’s invitation, as well as Li’s response to Austin’s speech. Refuting Austin’s allegations of “coercion and bullying”, Li indirectly criticized the US by positing three questions. First, “who is disrupting peace in the Asia-Pacific?” Second, “what are the root causes of chaos and instability?” Third, “what should we stay vigilant and guard against?” (Ministry of National Defense of the PRC, June 4). Here, a link can be drawn between the “who” and “what” in Li’s reference to China’s position paper on “US Hegemony and Its Perils,” which accused the US of acting boldly to “pursue, maintain and abuse hegemony” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, February 2023).

In opposition to the purported US-led hegemonic order, Li promoted Xi Jinping’s proposed “Global Security Initiative” (GSI) as a “new path to security, featuring dialogue over confrontation, partnership over alliances, and win–win [cooperation] over zero-sum [logic]” (Xinhua, June 5). The GSI represents the CCP’s latest endeavor to promote a constructive image of China, serving a similar role to China’s previously employed “peaceful rise” narrative, albeit with a broader scope and greater ambition. [3] Through the GSI, Beijing seeks to frame a Sinocentric world order as a viable alternative to the international security framework established by the US (China Brief, March 3). Under this initiative, China brokered the Saudi-Iran peace deal (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, March 10), comparable to the US-led Abraham Accords to uphold peace in the Middle East. In addition, the PRC is the only country to have issued a position paper on advocating for the “Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, February 24). Both these cases exemplify China’s interest in challenging what it sees as the US-led international order.


Overall, China’s rejection of Austin’s proposed meeting and Li’s subsequent plenary address underscore Beijing’s non-conciliatory stance towards the US, and its overarching suspicion of a US-led order. Chinese state media has claimed that the SLD has been hijacked as an international forum for US-led diplomatic and military containment of China, arguing that the dialogue has become “a platform for the US defense secretary to expound on the US’ regional security strategy” (Global Times, June 1). Furthermore, during his address, Li repeatedly accused the US of a “Cold War mentality” and rebuked the American-led Indo-Pacific Strategy for “provoking bloc confrontation” and promoting “self-interest” (IISS, June 4). Much of these statements reflect a prominent and longstanding theme in CCP discourse, namely an underlying assumption that the US and its allies seek to “encircle” China under the auspice of an international liberal order (Global Times, 2022).

According to the view consistently espoused by Li and Chinese state media, the responsibility for repairing bilateral mistrust lies squarely with the US. However, despite Washington’s repeated proposals to initiate bilateral talks, Beijing readily dismissed these dialogues under the pretense of American coercion, bullying and containment. It appears that, at least at present, the PRC has minimal interest in restoring US-Sino relations to a semblance of normalcy.



[1] Cancelled the China-US: Theater Commanders Talk, Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT), and Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings.

[2] To note, from June 18-19, Anthony Blinken visited China. For details, see US Department of State, ‘Secretary Blinken’s Visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’, June 19, 2023.

[3] On February 21, China issued a position paper on GSI. For details see, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, ‘The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper’, February 21, 2023.