By Elias Khoury
Since its inception in 2002, the annual Shangri-La Dialogue has become a premier forum for collaboration between security policymakers. The intergovernmental summit, which spans three days and takes place at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, hosts many notable guests. Last year, American Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese then-counterpart Wei Fenghe met on the event's sidelines. This year, however, there will be no such meeting.
Weeks ago, the United States invited China's new State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu to meet with Austin at the upcoming proceedings. At the end of May, however, China broke its silence and explicitly declined the invitation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said during a regular press conference that "the U.S. is clear about the reason behind difficulties facing China-U.S. military dialogue. The U.S. should earnestly respect China's sovereignty, security and interest concerns, immediately correct wrong practice."
Security analyst Ian Storey told Reuters that it would "fray regional nerves even further." An anonymous defense official cited by CNN decried China's supposed "litany of excuses" to avoid "engagements" and "dialogues." Sources in NBC and elsewhere voiced similar sentiments.
However, they fail to realize that China's hesitancy is completely understandable. Before Li became the defense chief, while he was head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission, the United States sanctioned him. The United States refuses to lift those sanctions. Yet they expect Li to negotiate with them anyway despite their relentless antagonism.
If he were to oblige them, that would violate China's commitment to only cooperate with the Americans "on the basis of mutual respect." It would also undermine the country's formal opposition to unilateral sanctions as outlined in their Global Security Initiative. American officials, of course, know this. Yet they will not do their part to create the conditions necessary for increased cooperation.
That lack of seriousness is one reason why observers should temper their hopes for this year's Shangri-La Dialogue. If the United States persists with its fierce anti-China posture, relations between the two powers are unlikely to improve. Mao Ning noted America's hypocrisy for wanting "to speak to the Chinese side while… impos[ing] sanctions on Chinese officials, institutions and companies." Mao also questioned the U.S.'s sincerity following President Joe Biden's prediction that U.S.-China relations will "thaw very soon." She then called on America to lift its various sanctions against China to create a "favorable atmosphere… for dialogue."
Her call unfortunately fell on deaf ears. The U.S. State Department recently announced that it has no intention of providing sanctions relief. This bodes poorly for the prospects of friendlier relations between these two powers.
Another reason to restrain optimism is the nature of the Shangri-La Dialogue itself. The forum is hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a hawkish London-based think tank. While the organization purports to be independent, this claim is doubtful. Investigative reporting revealed that historically the institute received at least a quarter of its funding from the Bahraini royal family.
But the think tank's integrity is not just compromised by its donors. The institute's advisory council, which determines the organization's "intellectual direction," also purveys a certain bias. It's filled with all manner of odious figures including billionaire financier Alejandro Santo Domingo and Emirati oil executive Badr Jafar. Marillyn Hewson – president of weapons giant Lockheed Martin from 2013 to 2020 – also occupies a spot on the council.
In short, the International Institute for Strategic Studies represents the same corrosive interests that own American government. So it's hardly the sort of neutral site that might foster fair and constructive dialogue between the United States and China. The deck is stacked in the Americans' favor. It's therefore no surprise that they are eager to liaise at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
With China now a bonafide power, it possesses the leverage to demand the equity and respect the Chinese government and people deserve. Until the United States accedes, China has every right to give them the cold shoulder – and probably will.
Elias Khoury, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is the managing editor of the Hampton Institute and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.