The Latest on Southeast Asia: June 8, 2023

On June 2-4, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore hosted the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a multilateral security conference often attended by defense chiefs and heads of state from mostly Indo-Pacific countries. This year’s agenda featured special sessions on balancing regional minilateralism with Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) centrality, defense cooperation in the Indian Ocean, and nuclear dimensions of regional security, among others; plenary speeches from U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu; and a keynote address from Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese. Defense ministers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Cambodia also participated in plenary sessions.

Most major coverage focused on the speeches by Secretary Austin and Minister Li, particularly in light of the China’s increasingly frequent unsafe intercepts of U.S. and allied vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. A week before the conference, the Chinese government declined a U.S. request for a meeting between the countries’ defense chiefs, as is usually customary on the sidelines of the forum. Secretary Austin criticized this decision in his speech, saying “for responsible leaders, the right time to talk is anytime,” and highlighted U.S. progress in expanding and deepening alliances in the region. Minister Li’s speech was his first international address since assuming his position in March. While he did not call out the United States directly, he said “some countries outside the region exercise their hegemony of navigation in the name of freedom of navigation.” After his remarks, participants from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia posed questions regarding Chinese armed forces’ recent maneuvers, including a near-miss between a Chinese jet and U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea, and between a Chinese warship and U.S. Navy ship in the Taiwan Strait. In response, Minister Li said that foreign vessels in waters claimed by China were “not here for innocent passage [but] for provocation.”

In other speeches, Southeast Asian leaders echoed the importance of adhering to international law, maintaining open lines of communication, and promoting peace and stability. Philippine defense officer-in-charge Carlito Galvez cited the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling as an example of how conflict in the South China Sea can be resolved through international law and reiterated President Marcos Jr.’s promise to defend its territory from foreign powers. Indonesian defense minister Prabowo Subianto presented a controversial proposal to establish a demilitarized zone between Russia and Ukraine, and Singaporean defense minister Ng Eng Hen called on countries to prioritize de-escalation and conflict avoidance. East Timor president José Ramos-Horta also implored developed nations to eradicate wealth inequality and “regain the trust of the Global South.”

Other defense relationships were strengthened on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. Defense chiefs from the United States, the Philippines, Australia, and Japan held their first-ever quadrilateral meeting. An official press release from Japan’s Ministry of Defense said that the leaders “discussed regional issues of common interest and opportunities to expand cooperation.” Following his keynote address, Prime Minister Albanese of Australia made a trip to Vietnam, the first visit by an Australian prime minister in almost four years. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of their establishment of diplomatic relations, the two countries agreed to establish a ministerial-level dialogue on trade and pledged to increase information-sharing on money laundering and terrorism financing. Australia and Vietnam may upgrade bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic relationship partnership soon, a status that Vietnam holds with Russia.

Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. 

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Karen Lee

Karen Lee

Former Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program