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

AuthorBisley, Nick
PositionCase study

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...

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