As US and China spar, the rest of Asia risks being stuck in the middle

It was a chance to pour some cool water on a flaring dispute.

The US and Chinese defense chiefs were both at Asia’s premier defense forum at the weekend. Yet neither acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan nor Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe addressed the increasing anxiety among smaller Asian states over the growing face-off between the world’s two largest economies.

Instead they used highly anticipated speeches at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to lob allegations of deceit, subversion and mistrust at each other. And all that the rest of the kids in the schoolyard could do was look on, hoping they don’t get hit when the punches start flying.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there was a growing risk that his country could be caught in the middle of a confrontation between Washington and Beijing, over China’s claims to most of the South China Sea and other issues.

“Our greatest fear is the possibility of sleepwalking into another international conflict like World War I,” Lorenzana said.

The Philippines has reason to worry. The country has a mutual defense pact with the US. It also sees Chinese troops occupying man-made islands within its exclusive economic zone and denying fishing and mining rights to Manila. That’s in spite of a UN ruling against China on the issue.

But Wei offered no quarter, saying China had never taken an inch of any country’s territory and would never give up an inch of its own.

“While they profess to respect the rights of states,” Lorenzana said, “their claim to the South China Sea is non-negotiable.”

Wei ignored a post-speech question at the summit on Sunday about the occupied islands.

Meanwhile, Shanahan said the US would continue sending its warships close to the Chinese-occupied islands to highlight its determination to keep the region free and open for all.

He then asked US partners and allies to join in and show commitment to the “rules-based” international order.

US partners have been doing so in recent months, with Japanese, Indian, Australian and French ships among others making the transit.

But Wei thinks the US — as well as some of those partners and allies — shouldn’t be in the South China Sea at all.

“Who is threatening security and stability in the South China Sea?” he asked, answering it was countries outside the region “who come to flex muscles” and then “walk away and leave a mess behind.”

China has its methods of persuasion. Wei mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative, which offers princely sums for economic development to nations in the region and beyond.

Shanahan said the US also had money and cited the BUILD Act, which provides American dollars for low- and middle-income countries. He said the US cash had no strings attached, unlike China’s — strings that can lead to Beijing essentially taking over infrastructure in countries that can’t repay its loans.

But one questioner pointed out that little, if any, of the BUILD money has been disbursed. That’s not something that tilts in Washington’s favor at a time when China has been opening its checkbook wide.

Shanahan told Shangri-La delegates that, essentially, China talked a good game but couldn’t be fully trusted, either to follow through on promises or to play by the rules.

And it may be one area where he did land a punch

Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich, whose country also has disputed claims in the South China Sea, sounded supportive of Shanahan.

“For Vietnam, we strictly uphold international law. It is not only in our words but our activities,” he said. “We are ready to work with countries to settle disputes on equal basis in accordance with international law.”

He added: “China needs to make a bigger role and effort.”

Still, with all the money and military muscle being flashed around, it’s no wonder nations in the region are wondering which superpower to trust, and which — if any — actually has local interests at heart.

“Both address lack of trust between each other, as well as lack of trust between their respective countries and the region,” said Meia Nouwens, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But the region mistrusts both countries for different reasons.

“China’s words of a peaceful rise do not match its aggressive actions. And the US’s promises of engagement, partnership and support to the region aren’t backed up enough in action.”