There were arguably three main issues that gathered the biggest attention throughout the past year: cyber security, and North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and territorial disputes. I will focus on the latter.
In a last PacNet article, Bonnie Glaser expressed great dissatisfaction with China's "missed opportunity" at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Obviously, the speech by China's top representative to the dialogue were anxiously awaited by virtually all the other delegations. Consequently, Glaser pointed her guns at China's Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo. Lt. Gen. Qi, the author argued, "delivered a speech full of platitudes that failed to confront the region's serious security issues." Glaser stated a comprehensive list of security concerns that were surely present in most of the other delegates' minds, but failed to be addressed.
"Inquiries went largely unanswered regarding such issues as China's use of paramilitary vessels to alter the status quo in the South China Sea and East China Sea; China's rejection of arbitration by the international tribunal on the Law of the Sea despite its being a signatory of UNCLOS; whether Beijing disputes Japan's sovereignty over Okinawa and other islands in the Ryukyu chain; the recent incursion by Chinese troops into the Indian-controlled territory of Ladakh; and if China is seriously weighing joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations."But was is truly a missed opportunity? I am yet to watch the video, which I hope may provide some hints regarding non-verbal communication such as body language, intonation, pauses, tone, and so forth, but there is one important takeaway I would like to emphasise.* In Lt. Gen. Qi's presentation we might have witnessed the first solid reference to an intention to shelve the territorial disputes, namely in the East and South China Seas. At the end of page 4 of the prepared English translation, it reads:
"We should put aside disputes, work in the same direction and seek solutions through dialogue and coordination, particularly when it comes to disputes concerning sovereignty as well as maritime rights and interests."If this proves to be the beginning of a Chinese overture toward ongoing territorial disputes, it may very well prove Glaser wrong in claiming this was a missed opportunity. Although addressing this multifaceted security issue will require engaging in intensive debates on all the issues that were left unanswered, it may prove to be a necessary first step that many in the audience were waiting for. And since the Shangri-La Dialogue is as much about transparency as it is about negotiations on the sidelines, I would not be too dismissive of official Chinese statements in a venue such as the SLD. The question is, will we observe a return to Deng Xiaoping's policy?
* Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo's video presentation was not available at the time of posting.